Sharks Swimming in Goaltenders

By Mike Delfino
In 1999, if you were to ask me which position were the San Jose Sharks
weakest at I would have easily answered goaltending. With Miikka
Kiprusoff still in Europe and Evgeni Nabokov a serious question mark, it
was a concern.

Now fast-forwarding to 2001, one can make an easy case that the Sharks
are most comfortable between the pipes. With Nabokov winning the Calder
Trophy as the league’s best rookie in 2001 and Kiprusoff who is
considered one of the best young goalies in the game, the Sharks have
two young goaltenders considered at the top of their position among
young players. In addition, they have Vesa Toskala who will be the next
starting goaltender next season in Cleveland, the Sharks’ new AHL
affiliate, and Nolan Schaefer who is quickly turning heads at Providence
College.

When a team drafts a player in the ninth round they hope that he will
make it to their AHL team. If he can make any kind of impact in the
AHL, that pick is considered a success. Rarely does a ninth round pick
make a serious impact in the NHL, in fact, most fans would be hard
pressed to name ten players currently making an impact in the NHL chosen
so late. However, Shark fans can easily name two, center Mark Smith
chosen in 1997, and Nabokov chosen with the 194th pick in 1994.

For a long time Nabokov was considered to be a typical ninth round
selection-a player who would struggle for a while and once he did make
it to Kentucky of the AHL, in all likelihood only make it as a backup.
He struggled immensely in his first season with Kentucky, with a record
of 10-21-2 and a GAA of 3.92. In his next season Nabokov rebounded in a
big way, improving his record to 26-14-1 and lowered his GAA to 2.62.
He started his third season in 1999 playing for Cleveland (on loan to
the now defunct IHL franchise), and had a 12-4-3 record and a GAA of
2.90 before being called up to the San Jose Sharks to backup Steve
Shields after the Sharks traded Mike Vernon.

Nabokov didn’t play much when he first arrived in San Jose, as Steve
Shields was eating up almost all of the minutes. However, in his first
start Nabokov shut out the Colorado Avalanche, but only earned a tie as
Colorado goalie Patrick Roy matched Nabokov’s effort. His first start
proved to be an encouraging omen to future success.

As the 2000/01 season started Nabokov was scheduled to be integrated
into the Sharks goaltending more than he was in his debut year, but
still backup Shields. However, when Shields injured his ankle in the
second game of the season, Nabokov stepped up and took the starting job,
winning eight games in a row.

As Nabokov’s season continued, he made it impossible for Shields to
earn the starting job back. Every time Shields had a chance to string a
few games together and impress head coach Darryl Sutter, Nabokov turned
around and one-upped him, holding on to that job with a vice-like grip.
Nabokov’s play convinced the Sharks to trade what became a valuable
asset in Shields along with popular left wing Jeff Friesen to Anaheim
for Teemu Selanne in March of 2001.

Although the last couple months of Nabokov’s season weren’t quite at
the same unbelievable level it was at the start, it was good enough to
propel the Sharks to fifth place in the Western Conference, the highest
standing in Sharks history. His final record for the season was
32-21-7, a GAA of 2.19 and a save percentage of .915. During the
playoffs Nabokov was hindered by various injuries, most notably a lower
back strain suffered in game three vs. the St. Louis Blues.

His accomplishments throughout the regular season earned Nabokov a
decisive win over Ottawa’s Martin Havlat and Tampa Bay’s Brad Richards
for the NHL’s Rookie of the Year. The award was the first Calder Trophy
issued to a member of the Sharks, and only the second of any award to a
Shark. The first was Tony Granato who won the Bill Masterton Memorial
Trophy for perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey in 1997
after coming back from brain surgery.

When last season began, Nabokov and Kiprusoff, a fifth round selection
in 1995, were slated to battle for the backup position to Shields. As
training camp closed, the race between the two was so close there was
consideration into keeping both with the Sharks, but ultimately they
decided to send Kiprusoff to Kentucky. There were suspicions that
Kiprusoff actually won that battle, but Nabokov was chosen since he had
a one-way contract that paid him the same whether in the NHL or AHL, and
Kiprusoff had a two-way contract that paid him less while in the AHL.

As it turns out the extra time in Kentucky only helped Kiprusoff refine
areas of his game. Where as he once overreacted to certain situations,
he learned to control himself better and respond to what actually was
happening on the ice instead of overly predicting what would happen. In
Kentucky he had a record of 19-9-6, a GAA of 2.24, and a save percentage
of .926, giving the Sharks the confidence to have Kiprusoff as their
backup to the now undisputed starter in Nabokov.

Kiprusoff’s first season in San Jose closely mirrored Nabokov’s, as he
only played sparingly as Nabokov played the majority of minutes. In
five regular season games he had a 2-1 record, a GAA of 1.95, and a save
percentage of .902. When Nabokov fell to injury in the playoffs,
Kiprusoff stepped in and played impressively. In three games he was
1-1, had a GAA of 2.01, and a save percentage of .937.

Next season it is expected that Kiprusoff will be more of a factor in
the Sharks’ goaltending. While Nabokov is still expected to be the
starter, Kiprusoff can expect to start 20-25 games next season, as the
heavy workload Nabokov had last season started to become evident as the
year progressed.

It is important to remember that going into last season Kiprusoff was
considered the better prospect. The Hockey News ranked him 15th
overall, and fourth among goalies in their Future Watch issue in March
of 2001. Don’t be surprised if there is another goaltending controversy
next season if Kiprusoff comes in and impresses when he gets the chance.

When Kiprusoff was promoted to San Jose it gave Vesa Toskala the chance
to show what he can do in Kentucky. Chosen in the fourth round in 1995,
the Sharks took Toskala along slowly, being careful not to rush him due
to his style of play. Toskala has always had an eccentric style to him,
causing the Sharks to want him to refine his game.

In 44 games with Kentucky last season Toskala had a 22-13-5 record,
with a GAA of 2.77, and a save percentage of .911. Next season Toskala
will have the starting job to his own, as the only other goaltender in
the Sharks system ready to play in the AHL is Seamus Kotyk, originally a
fifth round draft choice of the Boston Bruins in 1999. While Kotyk will
get his share of minutes, Toskala will get his chance next season.

With his play last season, Toskala proved another thing that may prove
to be invaluable to the Sharks. Should either Nabokov or Kiprusoff fall
to injury, Toskala proved that he is ready to step in at least as a
backup, making it unnecessary for the Sharks to rush and overpay in a
trade for a backup goalie.

Toskala has areas of his game that still need to be rounded out. Not
unlike Kiprusoff, he occasionally overreacts to certain situations, and
some of his eccentric attributes will be figured out at the professional
level. If he can learn to round these areas out, he can very easily
turn into one of the league’s top goaltending prospects as his athletic
ability is tremendous.

While the play of Nabokov was clearly a pleasant surprise last season,
the Sharks had another pleasant surprise by the play of Providence Friar
goalie, Nolan Schaefer. In only his sophomore year, Schaefer took the
starting job away from senior goalie Boyd Ballard in a situation that
mirrored Nabokov’s takeover in San Jose. A fifth round pick in 2000,
Schaefer wasn’t expected to take over the starting duties until the
2001/02 season when Ballard would have graduated, instead Schaefer
simply took the job with his play.

In 25 games last season Schaefer had a 15-8-2 record, a GAA of 2.47,
and a save percentage of .915. His GAA and saves (674) totals were good
enough to place him fourth in Hockey East, while his save percentage and
shutouts (three) were good enough for second. It is especially
impressive given that Schaefer is the only underclassman to be among the
top in all statistical categories for goaltenders. His play last season
earned him All-American and All-Conference honors last season.

Schaefer will almost certainly play out his college eligibility for
several reasons. First, there is still a lot he can learn at the
college level. As good as he played last season, there are still areas
of his game that he needs to round out, and he needs to prove that last
season wasn’t a fluke. Second, if he signed with the Sharks, the best
he would be would be fourth on the depth chart. He would receive only
limited time in Cleveland next season and could easily find himself
overwhelmed.

The timing for Schaefer couldn’t be better, as by the time he’s ready
for the NHL (probably sometime around 2004) either Nabokov or Kiprusoff
will have won the full-time starting duties in San Jose, Toskala’s
future will be better known, and then Schaefer can prove whether he can
challenge for minutes.

Schaefer is being watched very closely throughout the world of college
hockey. Next season the Friars will have a chance to make a run for the
Hockey East title, as all key elements to their success last season will
return. There is no reason that they won’t be able to improve upon
their fifth seed in last year’s Frozen Four tournament.

The Sharks have two other goaltending prospects that have the potential
to make waves. When the Sharks signed Kotyk in July, they were hoping
for a solid backup to Toskala in Cleveland next season. However, if he
can find the same magic he found during the OHL playoffs last season, he
could very well find his stock rise quickly.

Last season Kotyk had a record of 24-20-7, with a GAA of 2.74, and a
save percentage of .919 during the regular season. During the playoffs
he led Ottawa to the OHL championship, winning the playoff MVP in the
process.

During the 2001 Entry Draft, the Sharks selected goaltender Dimitri
Patzold out of Germany. While it’s far too early to make any kind of
prediction, there are a few interesting pieces of information on
Patzold. He was born in Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, the same hometown of
Nabokov. His instructor? You guessed it, Nabokov’s father.
Patzold plays a style not unlike Nabokov. They both play very
athletically and can both regain their position very quickly. Patzold
was ranked the third best European goaltender by the Central Scouting
Service and was the third of three German’s in a row selected by the
Sharks in the 2001 draft.

Every sport has a position where you can never have enough. A baseball
team can never have enough pitchers, football teams are always looking
for a top quarterback, and hockey teams are always looking for the next
great goaltender. For further proof look at New Jersey’s selection of
Ari Ahonen in the first round of the 1999 draft, despite having one of
the best goalies in the game in Martin Brodeur.

Most teams in the NHL struggle to look for any goalie in their system
who can make some sort of an impact, and fear having to overpay for a
goalie in trade. The Sharks are lucky enough not to have to worry about
this problem in the foreseeable future, and should the Sharks experience
troubles in other areas, they have plenty of tradeable assets.

For the Sharks, wouldn’t it be interesting if they had two Calder Trophy
winners in back-to-back years, both at the same position of
goaltending? Perhaps a better question would be to ask how many teams
even have this as a remote possibility?

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