The defining moment of Evgeni Nabokov's Sharks career came in one of the most emotionally devastating losses in franchise history. Three overtimes before Brenden Morrow eliminated San Jose from the 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Nabokov lunged across his crease and snatched a Brad Richards shot out of mid air, parallel to the goal line, for one of the most memorable playoff overtime saves in recent NHL history.
For a franchise that has often coupled incredible promise with grave disappointment, and for a goaltender who will forever be synonymous with its rise as a contender, it was fitting that Nabokov was responsible for a moment that encapsulated the former a few hours in real time before the Sharks as a whole would experience the latter.
Also fitting: four and a half years after leaving the team in free agency, Nabokov will retire a Shark. The club announced earlier today that they've acquired him from Tampa Bay for future considerations a week after the 39-year-old goaltender passed through waivers unclaimed. He'll announce his retirement on Wednesday, donning the colors of the team he helped guide farther than they'd ever been before, or have gone since, when he posted an incredible .935 SV% as San Jose advanced to Game 6 of the 2004 Western Conference Final. Six years later, in his final season in teal, he was once again part of a Sharks team that made it to the final four.
In almost every way, Nabokov was an anachronism. A goalie who rose to prominence during an era of highly regimented butterfly netminders despite deploying an unconventional hybrid style that relied on athleticism rather than technical poise. The first goaltender in NHL history to even try, let alone succeed in, scoring a power play goal. And, most importantly, a Russian Olympian who developed a close working relationship with Warren Strelow, the legendary goaltending coach who was part of the coaching staff that led Team USA to its iconic 1980 Olympic victory over the Soviets.
It's impossible to talk about Nabokov's time with the Sharks without bringing up Strelow, his mentor and friend who would later turn out regular NHL goalies like Miikka Kiprusoff and Vesa Toskala as well during his time with the Sharks organization before his passing in 2007. Nabokov himself explained their relationship in the 2005 book The Boys Of Winter about the 1980 U.S. Men's Team:
"It's hard to describe what this guy does for us, how helpful he is," Nabokov once said. "You've got to see him with us day after day. This guy gives up all his heart -- everything that he has -- to hockey. His life is hockey. He's watching the tapes all the time. He's talking to you. Anybody can coach. Any goalie who retires can tell you what to do. It's not that hard. But it's harder to go deeper, to get to know the goalie as a person and to understand them. Nobody is able to understand you like Warren does."
We may not have been able to fully understand Nabokov, with his broken English and Russian accent belying an often dry and hilarious sense of humor, but we loved him. At least until Joe Thornton arrived on the scene, perhaps no single Sharks player converted as many Bay Area residents into die-hard hockey fans as the man we still call Nabby.
Nabby wasn't perfect, especially in his first few seasons after undergoing sports hernia surgery soon after the 2005 lockout, but those imperfections made him all the more an embodiment of the 2000's Sharks just as much as Thornton or Patrick Marleau. Selected 219th overall in a round of the NHL entry draft that doesn't even exist anymore, Nabokov will retire as the franchise's all-time leader in games played, wins, shutouts and, in a category he'll likely never have to relinquish, goals. Godspeed Nabby.