A Look at Sharks Goaltending

By Mike Delfino

One can not undervalue the importance of goaltending come playoff time. Nearly every team to win the Stanley Cup in the last 10 years has all had great goaltending.

Looking past Steve Shields, the Sharks have 3 young goalies who stand to play a prominent role in the future for the Sharks, however, they all remain very much of question marks. All share a very similar motto (as can most goaltending prospects for that matter). All may turn into solid NHL goalies, and all may turn into nothing more than career minor leaguers.

This year saw the first Sharks drafted goaltender step foot on the ice for the San Jose Sharks–Evgeni (aka John, aka Yevgeni) Nabokov. All other goalies to play for the Sharks were either acquired via trade, free agency or other means. Nabokov was drafted in the 9th round, with the 219th overall pick in 1994.

In limited action in San Jose, Nabokov did exactly what was asked of him. In his first start he shutout Colorado in a 0-0 tie. In 11 appearances, he was 2-2-1, a save percentage of .910, with a 2.17 GAA. In only one game did he looked out of place. At the very least, Nabokov may have proved this year that he is a reliable backup.

Nabokov plays an aggressive style similar to Ed Belfour of the Dallas Stars. In fact, more than one person involved in the NHL has said that he has more physical talent than Belfour, but that it’s a matter of him putting it together. Both are very aggressive toward the shooter, neither is afraid to come out from his net to cut the angle, and both often let their emotions take over, sometimes for the good, often for the bad.

You’ll also see some of the wildness that was seen from former Shark and current Hurricane, Arturs Irbe. There are times when he makes his move for the puck, turns around, and notices he’s 15 feet from his crease, then scrambles back into position.

It is these kinds of awareness issues that Nabokov will have to improve upon to become an every day starter in the NHL. He has the physical ability, but must recognize what are the primary and secondary threats in certain plays.

Once he learns to get the mental aspects of the position down, he could very easily turn into one of the NHL’s top goaltenders. Whether he will or not, of course, will only be found out by playing.

Next year, he’ll have the chance to be the regular backup to Steve Shields, and if Steve Shields holds out for an extended period of time, possibly start several games in a row. Next year during training camp will be his time to show Sharks fans what he’s made of, and then again once he’s called upon to play on a more regular basis.

This year, Miikka Kiprusoff played in his first year of professional hockey, and all he did was go out and get voted the starting goaltender in the AHL All-Star Game. While Kiprusoff’s play tailed off at the end of the year and into the playoffs, this can be attributed to the longer season, and the basic ups and downs that a rookie will face.

In 47 games, Kiprusoff recorded a 23-19-4 record, with a save percentage of .924 and a GAA of 2.49. He shared much of the year in Kentucky with Johan Hedberg, but as the season progressed, Kiprusoff found himself playing more of the important games, and more games in general.

However, the final month of the season did not treat him well, as a combination of factors occurred. First, Kiprusoff began to struggle. He was letting in goals that earlier in the year he stopped with ease. Second, defensive call-ups to San Jose created chances for his opponents, which he didn’t respond well to. Third, Hedberg got incredibly hot going on a streak of 15 games without a loss.

Nicknamed “The Finnisher,” Kiprusoff has opposite characteristics of Nabokov in many ways. While Kiprusoff doesn’t have the natural ability of Nabokov, Kiprusoff has more poise in the net. It is almost as though he knows where his opponent is going, and reacts accordingly, giving the shooter no open net. He has the ability to stay focused through difficult circumstances, as he is able to see his way through screens, and read plays at very much a NHL level.

Around the All-Star game, a NHL scout was reported as saying that Kiprusoff could challenge for the starting job in San Jose as early as next year.

While Nabokov probably has a slight edge, Kiprusoff will certainly be in the running to backup Steve Shields next year. If he impresses, the Sharks will have no problem keeping Kiprusoff and sending Nabokov to Kentucky or the IHL.

The final key goaltending prospect for the Sharks is Vesa Toskala who played his last year in Sweden. Toskala attended his first training camp this year; at times looking impressive, and at others looking intimidated by the experience. The intention all along was to return Toskala to Sweden for one more year, then bring him to North America to play full time in the 2000-01 season. All indications are that this intention will be fulfilled next year.

Toskala played in 44 of his team’s 50 games, with a GAA of 2.67.

For a long time, Toskala was very erratic in his style. Sometimes only using his pure athletic ability to take over and make the save. As he has progressed, he has learned to settle down, using the butterfly system, and use the athletic ability he has from there.

The best thing for Toskala next year will be for him to play as much as possible. For him to be in a backup role will not do much for his development. The Sharks could send Toskala, Kiprusoff or Nabokov to an IHL team so they can play on a regular basis. They did that with Nabokov this year, sending him to Cleveland of the IHL so he could play, and it clearly did him well. If they do this with any of the 3 goalies, don’t see this as a demotion, but rather as a means of getting him minutes played. Of the three, one will be in San Jose, one in Kentucky, and one starting somewhere else.

Clearly, goaltending is an important position to be solid in. If you don’t have solid goaltending, you will not advance far in the playoffs no matter how good the rest of your team is. Whether Steve Shields will emerge into that type of goalie is still unknown, but even if he was a sure thing, having a bluechip goaltending prospect waiting in the wings is not a bad thing.

In the case of Toskala and Nabokov, they both have the physical ability to be as good as any goalie in the NHL. Whether either figures the mental aspects of the position is the huge question mark. Kiprusoff has the knowledge and mental aspects as any goalie in the NHL. For him, it’s a matter of refining some of his skills, and learning a little bit more consistency.

All three goalies have the potential to become top goalies in the NHL.