The San Jose Sharks have been the best team in the NHL so far this year. Their 20-4 record (with one regulation tie point) gives them 41 points and first place in the NHL. However, all is not perfect in San Jose. Their number one goalie Evgeni Nabokov has yet to play particularly well. He is sporting a .896 saves percentage, which has a lot to be desired. His other numbers do not look so bad. He has a 2.57 GAA and a 13-2 record. This is a testament to how well the Sharks have played in front of him. Nevertheless, his goaltending will become an issue if he continues to play at that level. It is impossible to have prolonged success in the NHL without better goaltending.
No, it won’t. Unless, of course, they stop winning. Which is doubtful, the way they’re playing.
I have to say this: it’s rather silly to look at a goalie that’s 13-2 and a goals against of around 2.50 and say “hey, maybe we should play the other guy”. Are we that bored that we have to go create a goalie controversy? No offense, but I just don’t buy it. Sometimes we get too enamoured with stats — pick the one stat that looks bad so we can talk about it, but forget to put it in the larger context.
Here’s the larger context. Well, “Nabokov is 13-2 and the team has only had one game in the last five weeks where it didn’t get at least one point (and Boucher was in net for that loss)”. Nabokov’s last loss was October 24th. Since then, he’s merely 8-0, giving up 17 goals for a GAA of 2.12. His save percentage since coming back from the injury is 917.
To me, that ends any question on this, but let’s dig a bit deeper. One aspect of the Sharks playing style this year is they have a very aggressive defense and a very aggressive offensive style. That means that many fewer EASY shots make it to the net (the sharks have allowed < 20 shots for a game three times, and < 25 shots eleven times) -- but the aggressive play of the defenseman lends towards some turnovers and odd-man rushes. In other words, a goalie's goal's against is likely to suffer, because fewer shots happen, but a higher percentage of good scoring chances. That was especially true early in the season while the team was trying to figure out this new system and mistakes were being made. Lately? Not so.
But also look at it this way. If you take three games out of the stats:
Anaheim 4-0 Loss
Philly 5-4 OT Win
Philly 7-6 SO Win
then Nabby’s numbers change significantly. His save percentage for the other 12 games he’s played becomes .919, good enough for 14th in the league (he’s currently 34th counting all goalies with 1 or more games played) — 9th if you only count goalies with 10 or more games. His GAA would drop to 2.08, good enough for 6th in the league, 3rd if you only count goalies with 10 or more games played.
And those three games were all six weeks ago, at the tail end of a sequence where the team played six games in 10 days and included back to backs twice and three plane trips (LA, Anaheim and Philly). Oh — and the team won 2 of those three games, and it was arguably the worst play for both the team and Nabokov all year.
The solution is obvious. When Nabokov was injured, backup goaltender Brian Boucher played extremely well. Boucher has a .928 saves percentage and a 1.89 GAA. Since Boucher was the temporary number one goalie, his better numbers are not a function of playing against weaker competition.
San Jose would probably benefit by using a two goalie system right now. Boucher is the hot hand and has not played in a little over a week since Nabokov returned from injury. His last game was November 22nd vs. Washington.
If you watch the Sharks every game, it’d be clear that Boucher’s a good goalie, but Nabokov’s a great goalie. it really isn’t close. It isn’t even that Nabokov’s playing badly, or even so-so. Even looking into the stats a little bit ought to make it clear that Nabokov’s “bad stats” were a small abberation early in the season. And despite that, the team took four of the six points.
The solution’s obvious: we really shouldn’t be having this discussion. So why are we? Nabby is 13-2. Have we hit that point where people aren’t happy unless the team is beating everyone 5-0? Is a one game losing streak unacceptable?
San Jose has a very good team this year. They have put up a first place record despite mediocre goaltending from their starter Evgeni Nabokov. When Brian Boucher is playing well, it would make more sense to use a two goalie system in San Jose than to go back to Nabokov exclusively. If Nabokov continues his lackluster play, I expect San Jose will not continue their winning ways. They can be overtaken by other top teams.
Sorry, his play is far from mediocre. His numbers are far from mediocre, too; they’re pretty darn good. Unless you look for something to complain about, and take it out of context. Of the goalie stats, save percentage has to be the plus-minus of goalie stats; so much really depends on team play. Honestly, as long as he’s winning, and when you look at his goals against, that’s all you really need to see to know Nabby’s doing what they team is asking of him.