Not even one year ago, many considered goaltending as the one area where the Sharks seriously lacked prospects at. Now, several reports claim that the Sharks have the best depth of goaltending prospects in the NHL. While I believe that is exaggerated, the state of the Sharks goaltending has improved dramatically in the last year with the emergence of Johan Hedberg, Evgeni Nabokov, and Miikka Kiprusoff.
When it was announced that Nabokov would be moved to Cleveland of the IHL, many considered it as a sign they were unhappy with his play. I suggested that this was not the case at all, and that at the time, he remained the number one goalie in the Sharks system. I still contend that I was right then, whether he’s still the number one goalie now though, is in a little more question.
In terms of God given skill, Nabokov has plenty of it, in fact, he may have more than any goalie not in the NHL. That does not necessarily make him the best goalie though. Nabokov is a very athletic goalie, who often looks very much like Ed Belfour in net. He is capable of making any save that comes his way. There is one big difference though, Belfour is very good at knowing when to zig and when to zag, something Nabokov is still working on.
Last year, the biggest problem with Nabokov was that he was incredibly inconsistent. One second, he looked like the next Vezina winner, then the other you were holding your breath wondering if he would make the next save. This year, he has learned to settle himself down a lot more. When he skates out onto the ice, you pretty much know what you’re going to get out of him—a very solid performance. He was also the goalie of the week for the week of 11/29-12/5.
The move to the IHL was not because they were unhappy with is play. There were several reasons why he went to the IHL, while Kiprusoff and Hedberg went to the AHL. First, Kiprusoff needed somewhere to play, and more so than Nabokov, needed the development aspects. It only made sense to have Kiprusoff playing more in the AHL. Secondly, the AHL is considered more developmental, the IHL more competitive and more like the NHL. Nabokov didn’t need the developmental aspects of the AHL as much, but desperately needed to face the higher level of competition. If Nabokov went back to the AHL, he would most likely be just as sporadic as he was last year.
A pleasant surprise this year has been the impressive play of Johan Hedberg, who has been a steady performer between the pipes. The veteran of these three at 26 years old, the best attribute in Hedberg may end out being as trade bait. Hedberg very well may be the perfect backup goalie for a team looking for a reliable backup behind a goalie who’s prone to injury, or can’t play every day.
3rd in the league in save percentage, it has often been Hedberg who has been the one to settle his team down some when things get out of hand. Going into this season, head coach Roy Sommer commented that he’d simply play whoever is the hot hand at the moment. That has been hard, since neither has experienced any kind of a slump. What’s more impressive, is that it wouldn’t seem like either is having some kind of an exceptional streak either, as it is just that this is the way these players play. While Hedberg’s numbers are slightly worse than those of Kiprusoff, he has still been a very consistent performer.
One could make a case that Kiprusoff has been the Sharks’ biggest and best surprise this year. One could make comparisons to current Sharks goalie, Mike Vernon. While he doesn’t have the physical ability of Nabokov, or the quickness of Hedberg, Kiprusoff is an incredibly smart goalie, who seems to know what the attacking player will do, long before he does it. While it is common for young goalies to make mental mistakes, Kiprusoff, 23, does not. He plays much older than his years would show.
3rd in the AHL in GAA and 2nd in save percentage, Roy Sommer is very big on this young player. A year ago while playing in Finland, many scouts referred to him as the best goalie in Europe, with the likes of Hasek playing abroad. He is very good at adapting to the situation required. At one time, he played a bit of an awkward style of goal, playing a bit of butterfly and a bit of standup, which didn’t suit him well. He has stuck with the standup style of play now, but still plays a mix of aggressive and passive, which suits him very well. While he doesn’t rush out to challenge a skater, he does once his defense has allowed the player to get past. Many goalies will come out to late, or too early, but he doesn’t.
Each year, Kiprusoff has elevated his game an extra notch. So far of course, he has not had the opportunity to be the starting goaltender in his first year of professional hockey. Once he does, that should give us a better idea of where he is in terms of NHL potential. As things stand now, there is no reason to believe he won’t blossom into a NHL quality goalie.
The question to the depth chart at goal for the Sharks is a very good question. It would probably be a safe bet to assume that Hedberg is at the bottom of the depth chart. Given his age, the chances of him becoming a NHL starting goalie is a slim one. At the same time though, they may choose to go with the veteran of the group, so maybe it’s not the best of bets. I’m guessing that if any are to be traded, he’ll probably be the first to go. Possibly around the trade deadline when teams make moves so they can protect a certain amount of players for the expansion draft.
The next in line between Kiprusoff and Nabokov, however is a far more difficult question to answer. Nabokov is more NHL ready than Kiprusoff is. He knows better how to settle into a position, and would probably not be so overwhelmed by the situation as Kiprusoff would be. He has more experience facing NHL type shots and players as well. In addition, they may want to get him in a couple games, just to see what he can do. Kiprusoff very well may be the better choice because if he can step up his game like he consistently has, he would probably perform better than Nabokov. However, if he fails to do this, and if it is proven that he needs more seasoning first, it could turn to be a waste of time, and possibly damaging to his confidence.
If it were my choice, I would stick with Nabokov as my next in line for the Sharks for much of the reasons mentioned above. In terms of long term relief, it would almost certainly be Nabokov as the call-up, since it is clear that Kiprusoff does in fact need at least one more year of development in the AHL, before being relied upon in the NHL on a regular basis. Although I also wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see the two goalies share time in San Jose throughout the year if such a situation arose.
We may end up finding out as soon as next year who will be the call-up if Vernon ends up getting traded, retires, or decides to exercise his option and go elsewhere. That would provide a good situation for whoever it is, as they can backup for Shields, allowing them to show what they’re made of.
It has been a long time since I’ve written, too long in fact. A combination of factors has kept me from writing, but be assured, that I’m back, and will be writing a good amount of stories in the near future. The next, which will update the entire Sharks’, prospects playing in the minors, juniors, or Europe should be posted in a couple weeks.