Who Is That Masked Man? The Sharks' Evgeni Nabokov heads a class of unheralded goaltenders who have made a name for themselves with surprisingly spectacular starts

December 25, 2000

The best goaltender you don't know is a rookie who was selected so
late in the draft that it wasn't even on cable, who hails from a
country so obscure that it could be a $125,000 question on Who
Wants to Be a Millionaire and who has a name that can't be done
justice without a remedial course in Tolstoy. Although Evgeni
Nabokov (yev-ZHEN-ee na-BOK-off)--or John, as his San Jose Sharks
bosses call him--had more victories through Sunday than any other
goaltender this season, most NHL players couldn't pick him out of
a police lineup if he whipped off his mask. "But nobody really
had heard of Dominik Hasek until he got a chance to play and
become Dominik Hasek," says forward Mike Keane of the Dallas
Stars.

Nabokov plays the second most important position in the league at
the moment, ranking just behind Legend Coming Out of Retirement.
This season is destined to become the Year of Mario when Mario
Lemieux descends from the Olympus of his owner's suite to tug on
a Pittsburgh Penguins sweater later this month, but until then
hockey belongs not to that magnificent surprise but to half a
dozen smaller ones who guard the nets. The NHL has been dominated
by a group of goalies of whom the league had seen either too
little or, in the notable case of the Phoenix Coyotes' Sean
Burke, too much.

"Goalies are like pitchers," says Vancouver Canucks veteran
backup Bob Essensa, whose eight wins in nine starts at week's
end could ignite a goaltending controversy if Felix Potvin, who
had nine wins in 23 starts and a $2.7 million salary, continues
to stumble. "Touted 20-game winners sometimes win a dozen, and
the guy supposed to start a game here or there wins 15."

Go figure. San Jose's presumptive No. 1 netminder, Steve Shields,
28, got Wally Pipped after he sprained his right ankle in the
Sharks' second game. The 25-year-old Nabokov, who had five
previous NHL starts, stepped in and Lou Gehriged his way to a
.934 save percentage and a 1.79 goals-against average through
Sunday for the 19-6-4 Sharks. In Detroit the dominant goalie of
the most successful team over the past five seasons, two-time
Stanley Cup winner Chris Osgood, 28, was nudged aside by
27-year-old Manny Legace, a stumpy acrobat who makes saves look
like grand theater and who had been tossed back to the minors by
four organizations. St. Louis Blues rookie Brent Johnson, with an
NHL-leading 1.60 goals-against average and a 11-1 record, has
unexpectedly pushed No. 1 Roman Turek. In Philadelphia the Flyers
slowly have been won over by the .919 save percentage of Roman
Cechmanek, a sixth-round draft choice last June at a doddering
29. Hasek's understudy on the Czech Republic's 1998 gold medal
Olympic team, Cechmanek blankets the bottom of the net, literally
heads the occasional shot away with his mask and so delightfully
mangles the English language he is one jumpsuit shy of playing
Latka Gravas on a Taxi remake.

Finally, in Phoenix, the once highly regarded Burke, 33, who in
the last three seasons had neither solved the Flyers' chronic
goaltending woes nor sparkled as the No. 1 in Florida or
Vancouver, was tied for the NHL lead at week's end with a .935
save percentage, a flattering number considering the Coyotes
didn't sign him until Sept. 9 and then only as a stopgap until
Wayne Gretzky's ownership group gained control and finalized a
deal with restricted free-agent holdout Nikolai Khabibulin.
"Burke's taken three points from us pretty much by himself,"
Canucks coach Marc Crawford says of the 6'4" 210-pounder. "He
takes away so much of the bottom of the net that you have to go
high on him. He plays so big he's been forcing players to change
their shots. And he's been playing deeper in the crease than
ever."

That positioning is the influence of Phoenix goaltending coach
Benoit Allaire, a contrarian who wants his goalies deep in the
net to prevent pucks from being slipped behind them rather than
at the top of the crease to reduce a shooter's angle.

Nabokov also plays uncommonly close to the goal line, but he has
no obvious distinguishing technique, none of the rococo of
Hasek's dropped paddles for Buffalo or Patrick Roy's Statue of
Liberty glove saves for Colorado or Curtis Joseph's cross-handed
passes for Toronto. In a craft rife with bells and whistles,
Nabokov is white noise. Stick a metal rod in his back, remove the
unfortunate San Jose teal jersey, and he could be a 1960s
table-hockey goalie. He is quick laterally (as are most modern
goalies), plays a hybrid between the stand-up and butterfly
styles (as Khabibulin does), makes himself look bigger than his
six-foot frame, controls rebounds and makes short, safe passes on
the infrequent occasions he handles the puck.

Nabokov's most significant asset might be his least conspicuous:
patience. He displays an eerie calm usually observed only in Fed
chairman Alan Greenspan. "Nothing fancy," Stars center Mike
Modano said on Dec. 6 after Nabokov made 31 saves to salvage a
2-2 tie in a game in which Dallas dramatically outplayed San
Jose. "He's methodical, well taught in the fundamentals. I had a
great chance in the third period, so did [Jamie] Langenbrunner,
and he turned those away like they were nothing."

Nabokov has indeed been well-schooled in the masked art.
Goaltending was an heirloom passed down by his father, Viktor,
who played 18 years for Torpedo, a first-division team in
Kazakhstan, then part of the Soviet Union. Evgeni would attend
the games. When he was seven, a fan in the row behind him was
riding Viktor, who was having one of those ugly nights that all
goalies experience. Evgeni did what any son would do. He wheeled
and whacked the heckler in the shin. "I told him, 'Shut up,'"
Nabokov says. "'That's my dad.'"

The goaltending bloodline and some inside information that he was
headed to Moscow Dynamo, one of Russia's top clubs, induced the
Sharks to take a flier on him with their ninth-round pick, the
219th overall, in the 1994 draft, despite never having seen
Nabokov play in person or on tape. He was sitting in a sauna when
Dynamo coaches walked in with a newspaper that printed the draft
list. Nabokov was pleased, but the Sharks didn't contact him, and
he quickly put them out of his mind. San Jose waited more than
2 1/2 years before finally catching up with Nabokov in Finland at
the finals of the 1997 European club championships. John
Ferguson, the Sharks' senior professional scout and a man of
oversized opinions, left that tournament impressed, raving about
Nabokov's active stick and comparing him to Hall of Famer Johnny
Bower from goaltending's gilded age of the 1950s and 1960s.
Ferguson insisted that San Jose's scouting department compile
videotape so that Dean Lombardi, the general manager, could see
Nabokov for himself.

The Sharks found some footage. Unfortunately it turned out to be
three years old, showing Nabokov when he was 19 and foundering, a
hunk of Swiss cheese on skates. Lombardi and his advisers watched
in stunned bemusement as pucks whipped through his legs and over
his glove from every angle, more Russia's Funniest Home Videos
than a glimpse of their goaltending future. Ferguson phoned a
week later, assuming the rest of the front office would share his
enthusiasm. "Well, Fergie," Joe Will, the scouting coordinator at
the time, said diplomatically, "now I know what Johnny Bower
looked like."

"When Fergie saw that videotape," Lombardi recalls, "he started
screaming that someone had switched tapes, that this wasn't his
guy."

That summer San Jose signed him. Nabokov was at first reluctant
to join the organization because he knew he would be going from a
championship-caliber team in Russia to some godforsaken farm
club. The minors--in this case, the Kentucky Thoroughblades of the
American Hockey League--lived down to his expectations. He
couldn't grasp the game on the smaller ice surface, especially
since he saw little playing time. He also had difficulty learning
English, and he couldn't understand the roars of the fans for the
goons and the silence for the skill players. Two months into the
season he telephoned one of his agents, Anna Goruven, in Toronto
and said he was going home. She helped persuade him to stay a
while longer, a decision motivated in part by a blossoming
relationship with a college student and part-time waitress he had
met, Tabitha Eckler.

This is what Berlitz doesn't tell you: Love is the best
foreign-language textbook. By the end of March his embryonic
English had zoomed to conversational levels, he and Eckler--now
his fiancee--were a serious item, and his goaltending, gently
nurtured by Sharks consultant Warren Strelow, was making steady
progress. Nabokov had graduated from project to prospect. San
Jose is notorious for rushing young players (defenseman Mike
Rathje and forwards Jeff Friesen and Patrick Marleau were all
overmatched teenagers when they made their NHL debuts), but the
team let him develop in the minors for another year and a half.
The Sharks traded Mike Vernon to the Panthers last December only
after Strelow had assured them that Nabokov would be more than a
competent backup for Shields.

Nabokov made his debut last January with 39 saves in a goalless
game against Roy and the Avalanche, and then he vanished as
Shields carried San Jose into the playoffs and past St. Louis in
a shocking first-round upset. When Shields was injured early this
season, the Sharks players were crushed. "It was like, Oh, man,
two games and our goalie's gone," Friesen says. "We didn't know
what to expect from Nabby."

Nabokov started rolling this season on Oct. 20 in a perfunctory
win over the expansion Minnesota Wild. That started him on a
Sharks-record-tying streak of 11 straight unbeaten games, six of
which came on the road. Nabokov was winning matches with his
spartan style and winning over teammates with his stoicism,
returning 14 minutes after taking a shot off the mask and six
stitches in a 3-2 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes on Oct.
24. There might have been some soft goals along the way, but no
one could remember any, at least not until a 45-footer by
Vancouver's Harold Druken bounced in off Nabokov's right pad late
in the first period on Dec. 8. The shot ended Nabokov's stretch
of 207 minutes, 46 seconds without allowing an even-strength goal
and landed him on the bench for the last two periods of a 6-1
drubbing. Nabokov says the benching was unexpected--he had the
grace not to point out that he had stoned Todd Bertuzzi and
Markus Naslund on a two-man breakaway during the match--but he was
fine with it.

Lombardi is an often glum man who frets that some of the
unexpected performances by netminders this season is a product of
the 30-team NHL. "Not to take away anything from what these
goalies are doing, but now if a team has one 40-goal scorer,
they're delighted. The [goalies'] success might be a function of
the dirty word, dilution [of talent]."

Maybe. But those dim sentiments are hardly in keeping with the
spirit of the season. In Detroit, Philadelphia, Phoenix, St.
Louis, Vancouver and, yes, San Jose, the surprise gift should be
the most treasured of all.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY GERRY THOMAS SHARP SHARK In his first full NHL season Nabokov has held opponents to 1.79 goals per game. COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO FLAT-OUT GOOD After several disappointing seasons, Burke has been rejuvenated, thanks in part to a new goaltending coach in Phoenix. COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA

A Surprising Six-pack

Evgeni Nabokov began the season as a backup, but now he's a
Vezina Trophy candidate. He is also at the top of a class of
netminders, including Roman Cechmanek (right), who have exceeded
expectations this season (statistics through Sunday).

--David Sabino

PLAYER, TEAM
Evgeni Nabokov, Sharks

RECORD, GOALS-AGAINST AVERAGE
17-4-3, 1.79

SKINNY
League leader in wins and third in goals-against average; may
keep Shields on the bench

[PLAYER, TEAM]
Brent Johnson, Blues

[RECORD, GOALS-AGAINST AVERAGE]
11-1-0, 1.60

[SKINNY]
Standout rookie is pushing Roman Turek for the starting job in
St. Louis

[PLAYER, TEAM]
Manny Legace, Red Wings

[RECORD, GOALS-AGAINST AVERAGE]
11-4-3, 2.15

[SKINNY]
1994 Canadian Olympian had a 6-9-2 career NHL record before this
season

[PLAYER, TEAM]
Sean Burke, Coyotes

[RECORD, GOALS-AGAINST AVERAGE]
11-6-7, 1.87

[SKINNY]
In 13th season, he's playing better than ever; career
goals-against average is 3.02

[PLAYER, TEAM]
Bob Essensa, Canucks

[RECORD, GOALS-AGAINST AVERAGE]
8-1-1, 2.03

[SKINNY]
Ten-year veteran is yielding 1.16 fewer goals per game than his
career average

[PLAYER, TEAM]
Roman Cechmanek, Flyers

[RECORD, GOALS-AGAINST AVERAGE]
8-5-2, 2.02

[SKINNY]
First-year Czech player has seized starting job from slumping
Brian Boucher (6-6-4, 3.27 GAA)

"He takes away so much of the bottom of the net," says Crawford,
"you have to go high on him."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)