Before you start to worry, no. I haven't heard of any plans made by Nabokov to head overseas following this next NHL season. (And don't worry, Russia didn't drop back into communism either) However, when looking at the big picture, there seems to be an increasing number of factors that point to Nabokov possibly switching leagues after the 2009-2010 NHL season.
In this article, I will list what I believe are factors that could determine if Nabokov will remain an NHL netminder after next season. Although it's highly possible that he finishes his career in North America, it's also possible that he will decide to return to his homeland instead. Perhaps he won't even be making the decision himself... I believe there are many things that could force his hand.
Skill: By most accounts, Nabokov has been a godsend for San Jose. After being drafted by the Sharks in the ninth round of the 1994 NHL Entry Draft, no one could have suspected that he would go on to become the franchise's star players. Since joining the Sharks in 2000, Nabokov has won 249 games, logged 28,296 minutes and posted 47 shutouts. All of these are franchise records.
Recently, however, Nabokov's strong play has begun to escape him. Always considered as a workhorse-type player, Nabokov has had a hard time yielding a start to his backups. This, coupled with his increasing age (at 34 he's the sixth oldest starting goaltender in the league) has led to an apparent decrease in skill visible in the 2008-2009 season. Injuries caught up to the Russian netminder during the season, and limited his ability during the year. This was especially apparent during the recent postseason, when the older Nabokov was outmatched by rookie goaltender Jonas Hiller. Although much of the Sharks team was responsible for the disappointing first round exit, Nabokov's play did little to help his team as he posted a 2.82 GAA and an .890 save % in 6 games.
Nabokov hasn't been terrible, but his play is 2008-2009 definitely didn't live up to his contract. Although he was second in wins, he was only 12th in GAA and 25th in save %. That's not enough for the seventh highest paid netminder in the league.
Scarcity of Work: As this is Nabokov's last contract year, he'll be an unrestricted free agent after the season. While he's still considered by many to be a top NHL netminder, there aren't many teams that will be looking for a new goalie at the end of the season. Of the nine teams (including San Jose) whose primary netminder will be a free agent at the end of the season, only seven will have to deal with them leaving for unrestricted free agency. Two more teams are expected to resign their netminders before the start of the 2010 offseason; Anaheim and Vancouver have expressed interest in returning Jonas Hiller and Roberto Luongo, respectively. So, that leaves five teams (San Jose [Nabokov], Dallas [Turco], Toronto [Toskala], St. Louis [C. Mason] and Nashville [Dan Ellis]) who will possibly be exploring new goaltending options in 2010.
If he doesn't sign with San Jose, who else would want him? Of the other four teams, I'm not sure if any would have any interest. In Dallas, Marty Turco has meant as much to the Stars in the 2000's as Evgeni Nabokov has meant to the Sharks. Since the Stars are in a quasi-rebuilding mode, it's not likely that they'd give Nabokov the term or the salary that he's likely looking for. If they were to shake things up and decide not to bring Turco back, I don't expect they'd look to Nabokov. He's equal in age and in the same perceived state of decline.
In my opinion, Toronto is about as likely as Dallas to sign Nabokov. Although trading for former Shark Vesa Toskala hasn't exactly worked out for them, they were able to convince Swedish Elite League star Jonas "The Monster" Gustavsson to sign with them over other NHL teams (including Dallas and San Jose). They'll likely supplant Toskala with Gustavsson if Toskala struggles, and will be less likely to give up on him if he has a few rough months. Although Gustavsson is an RFA after the season, it's quite possible that they view him as their goaltender of the future headed into 2010. Nabokov's not looking to be a backup.
St. Louis and Nashville are more fitting destinations than Dallas and Toronto. Both clubs could have gotten better play from their netminders, but will either look to add Nabokov? If St. Louis continues to improve in 2009-2010, I could see them pursuing Nabokov in the offseason. Nashville is also possible, but even they have a goaltender waiting in the wings. Although Pekka Rinne will also be a UFA, I fully expect him to be signed to a long term deal if he continues to outplay Dan Ellis next year. In addition to the competition currently employed by the clubs, Nabokov won't be the only capable goalie on the market, either.
Besides Nabokov, Turco, Ellis, Chris Mason and Toskala, many other goaltenders will be looking for homes. Although Jaroslav Halak is involved in current trade speculation, he's also an RFA that year. With Carey Price currently entrenched as the number one goalie in Montreal, it's likely Halak will be moved to or signed by a team in need of a starter. In addition, Jose Theodore will be looking for a new home, as will Alex Auld. While they may not be starter material, they are capable NHL tenders.
Money: We're living in a salary cap world, and we're also faced with arguably the worst economic downtown since the Great Depression. Those two ingredients don't bode well for free agents next year. We're likely going to see the cap decrease in 2010, and teams that are currently feeling the pinch are sitting pretty compared to what could happen next year. If the cap decreases by as little as $500,000, it will change the strategy for many teams.
San Jose will have approximately $20MM in cap space coming off the books next year (including Nabokov) if no moves are made before the end of next season. If Marleau does indeed stick around, the club will likely resign him and make offers to it's young crop of RFA's including Devin Setoguchi, Joe Pavelski, and Derek Joslin. That's a quick way for cap space to evaporate.
So, if Nabokov does come back to the Sharks, he'll have to take a pay-cut. He might be willing, he might not be. It's probably the same story no matter which team he signs with.
In the 2009 offseason, many former 34+ goalies went looking for new jobs. Nikolai Khabibulin left the Chicago Blackhawks after resurrecting his career and signed with Edmonton. He took an average annual pay-cut of $3MM. Dwayne Roloson also made a change over the summer, signing with the lowly New York Islanders and taking a $1.167MM annual pay-cut. Martin Biron, although not yet 32, also joined the New York Islanders. He'll be making an average $2.1MM less annually than he did on his previous contract.
It's likely that we will see more of the same frugality in 2010. So, even if Nabokov is to bounce back from last season and once again display top numbers, he'll be looking at smaller paychecks in the NHL.
The KHL, on the other hand, is a different story. Although the contracts awarded usually aren't as large, the benefit is that the players don't have to pay the high North American taxes on them, increasing the total worth of the deal. In addition the KHL pays for most all room and board. While that doesn't seem like much, it's still an added bonus.
Reputation: Nabokov's name is pretty well known across the NHL, but when you combine relative popularity with little to no postseason success you usually arrive at one word: overrated.
SInce I've gotten to watch Nabokov over the last decade or so, I definitely don't think he's overrated. Yes, he's inconsistent from time to time, but he's carried the Sharks on many occasions, and is capable of taking over a game when necessary.
However, fans in San Jose seem to be jumping off the Nabby-wagon. After another playoff disappointment, it seems as if many are sick of seeing the team fail with Nabokov between the pipes. Regardless of the fact that it's not completely his fault, many fans are calling for his head. In a recent poll, we found that about half of our readers would sacrifice Nabokov if the salary cap situation got any murkier. If the Sharks fail again in the playoffs, I doubt many people would be clammoring for a new contract for Nabokov.
That's true with other teams, too. You don't sign a player like Nabokov unless you are looking for an upgrade, and if a team wants to succeed in the playoffs, they might not view Nabby as an improvement. That might not be fair, but dammit, it's life.
The Motherland: While all of the factors above could contribute to Nabokov's decision, it might be the allure of his homeland that's too much to pass up. Nabokov wouldn't be the first NHL player to move to Russia before his NHL time was over. Alex Korolyuk did it in 2007. Even superstar Jaromir Jagr bounced in 2008. Add to the list Nils Ekman, Sergei Zubov, Ray Emery, Martin Prusek and Jiri Hudler. Although some return to the NHL afterwards, many go to Russia to finish their careers and spend time in their home country.
Could Nabokov be next? This is all pure speculation at this point, but if you were to tell me that Nabokov was considering playing in Russia after this season, I wouldn't be surprised. Although the Sharks don't have an heir apparent to Nabokov, it might almost be time for the two sides to go their separate ways. Unless the Sharks wow the Russian keeper with an offer he can't refuse, he might decide it's better to return home.