Reactions to Nabokov's Return to Russia: Surprising, but Huge
While the news of Nabokov choosing to continue his career in the KHL did not surprise too many of us here in North America (and in fact, TCY predicted this outcome a year ago), it generated a lot of buzz back in Russia. Most sports journalists and hockey analysts saw that move as one of the biggest and most important ones in the history of KHL. In fact, few went as far as to suggest that the KHL should now be seen as a real alternative to the NHL for hockey free agents looking for a club.
I do not see KHL quite this way, even if the impossible does happen and Kovalchuk follows Nabokov to St. Petersburg. All we have to do is look at the roster of the club that Nabokov joined. While it may seem impressive from the first look - Alexei Yashin, Alexander Korolyuk, Maxim Sushinsky, Sergey Brylin on the offense, and Darius Kasparaitis, Sergey Zubov on the defense - this kind of roster might have only looked scary 10 years ago or so. All these hockey stars are years removed from their prime, and it's no wonder no NHL club wants them. Even with this roster of aging veterans, SKA is still considered to be one of the elite KHL clubs. Nabby might even be considered a youngster there.
Nonetheless, I think Nabokov still has at least 2-3 years of top quality goaltending left in him. We'll follow his KHL stats closely. For those who still care about Nabby, I'll be sure to share the links to KHL broadcasts online, since the league makes them available.
As promised, after the jump, the interview of Nabokov to the Russian press and a couple of reactions from Russia on Nabokov's new KHL contract.
D. Ponomarenko of Soversky Sport was able to reach Nabby and ask for his thoughts about moving to Russia.
SKA showed their interest to me right away. I had few conversations with Alexander Medvedev [President of KHL and SKA]. He told me that they'll have a very competitive roster in St. Petersburg. I, on the other hand, promised that if I'll move to Russia, I'll only move to SKA. I always wanted to play for teams that set the highest goals for themselves.
So you're moving to Russia to compete for Gagarin Cup?
Sure, we can say so. We'll compete.
When did you first talk to Medvedev.
Can't remember exactly, but before July 1st.
Why did you sign a four-year contract?
That's an ideal term for me. If I was to sign in the NHL, it was also going to be a four-year contract.
Now, when we mention 'four years', we always think about the Olympic games in Sochi in 2014. Did you keep that in mind?
Don't forget that I'll be 38 years old in 2014. But I won't hide, yes, I am thinking about the Olympics. If I'll be in shape, I'll do my best to make the roster.
Are you planning on playing for Team Russia during Eurotour? [from Ivano:a tournament that takes place several times during the season and KHL stops during this time] Or is there a clause in your contract that says you can take off for the States during those breaks?
No such clauses in my contract. I didn't even talk to Russia's coaches about that. When I get to Russia, we'll meet with Bykov and discuss.
It's likely that you made the decision about your contract at the family council. It's surprising how easily your American family decided to move to Russia.
In reality, it wasn't that easy. We spent a week thinking about it. There were a lot of questions, especially related to children. We considered all options before July 1st. My wife agreed to move. And SKA promised to take care of all the living circumstances. It's been more than 10 years ago since I lived in Russia. Tabitha and the children know nothing about our country. But they'll now learn.
And yet we know that the signing of contract was delayed mostly because of issues about the living circumstances.
I'll repeat, the club promised to help. I also talked to the guys who moved to SKA from the NHL - Andrei Zyuzin, Darius Kasparaitis. They all said that everything at the club is at the top level. Sergey Zubov said that there is an excellent English speaking school in St. Petersburg that my children can attend.
Looks like Nabby's family will live in comfort and the kids will be fine without speaking Russian. Well, they'll be fine till they hit their first -30F weather that shows up in St. Petersburg as early as November.
First media reaction, by V. Slavin of Sovetsky Sport, sees this move as a win-win situation both for Nabokov and Russian hockey.
We should congratulate the executives of SKA with the acquisition of Nabokov. They strengthened the weakest position on the team - goal-tending. It was because of inconsitency of Robert Esche that the team collapsed in both of the recent playoffs of Gagarin Cup.
Another person who wins from moving to Europe is Evgeni himself. With the variety of goaltenders on this year's NHL free agents market, Nabokov had no chance of signing another $6M contract that he used to earn in San Jose. Especially with his playoffs reputation.
Not only did the 2008 World Champion signed a contract that's likely better in money than his previous contract with the Sharks when we consider taxes. But another important factor for Evgeni, who turns 35 in July, is that on the large IIHF rinks the goalies do not work as much as they do on the NHL ice. They also play less games and travel less. That means Nabokov can spend more time with his family, which is something that Nabokov likely considered when choosing St. Petersburg.
Team Russia's coaches can also breathe more easily now. They're no longer dependent on the NHL until the Olympic games in Sochi in 2014. Yes, Evgeni will be 38 then, but what makes him worse than Dominic Hasek? He's 45 now and at that age decided he wants to conquet the KHL. He was 37 when he won his first and last Stanley Cup [as a starter]. Hasek's example also makes us think that Nabokov's NHL career might not yet be over. Why wouldn't he go back there in the fall of 2014? Hasek retired twice, and two times came back to the NHL.
Second reaction, from Mikhail Zislis of Sport Express, sees the move as equal to if Kovalchuk was to return to play in Russia:
The initial thought about Nabokov's move was that of a surprise. That's not the kind of news we were expecting from St. Petersburg, since SKA spent the whole year courting another Russian star player - Ilya Kovalchuk. Accross the pond, the other Russian still can't find understanding for his financial demands, while in St. Petersburg they're waiting for him with open arms.
But SKA president Alexander Medveved still found a way to set off a transfer market shock of the world proportions - just not the kind we were expecting. The initial reaction is that the signing of 35 year old Nabokov is just as big of a move as the potential arrival of Kovalchuk. The goaltender of such caliber never played in the KHL before, and the last time someone of this level played in Russia was during the NHL lockout when both Nabokov and Nikolay Khabibulin decided to kill that time here. Nabokov even managed to leave a good impression of himself during that time, unlike his colleague.
Only those who are far away from the sport will take a look at Nabokov's passport and say that he's a pensioner returning to Russia to finish his career. As we remember the examples of Hasek, Belfour and Brodeur, who carried their teams on their shoulders even past 35 years old, we'll understand that Nabokov could still play at the highest level for at least three more seasons. He has no health issues. He recently played 77, 62 and 71 regular season game. The 2009/10 season became the best season in Nabokov's NHL career from the perspective of the most important metric - save percentage. It's also important to remember that San Jose defense last season often played risky and inconsistently.
Many North American experts called Nabokov the second best goaltender of the regular season behind the great Brodeur. But they all made an important disclaimer - only in the regular season.
The playoffs wins almost always earned by the whole team, rather than one person. The other Sharks top players (also world-class stars with big salaries), Canadians Thornton, Boyle, Blake and more recently Heatley, tended to also disappear in playoffs, and at times so bad that they looked like they were figure skating, rather than playing hockey. It's no wonder Nabokov's efforts were in vain.
Nabokov's appearance in the KHL is a major event. I think that's not a coincidence that he signed a four year contract - he's likely thinking about the Olympic games in 2014. He'll be 39 at the time - a normal age for a goaltender. At 45 Hasek is still perceived as a great find for Spartak. And now Nabokov's battle with his Czech colleague will be one of the great stories of the upcoming season. Those who think Evgeni will regress in SKA should talk to offensive players on the other teams. I'm sure all of them already set a goal for themselves next year - to score against the most expensive goaltender of the KHL.
What that means is that Nabokov won't get bored in Russia.