Kukla's Korner Hockey
by Jon Jordan on 12/15/10 at 01:23 PM ET
There has been no shortage of discussion regarding the possibility of free agent goaltender Evgeni Nabokov landing with the Tampa Bay Lightning in recent days.
I discussed the matter at such length, with co-hosts Mike Corcoran and Mark Pukalo on Monday night/Tuesday morning’s episode of The Bolts Beat, that more than half of the show was devoted to the matter – a first for a single topic in the podcast’s history.
And the potential marriage has also been covered at a national level, with The Sporting News’ Craig Custance throwing in his two cents.
All parties have offered the logic behind perceived mutual interest between player and club – Nabokov in the Lightning because he needs a job and this isn’t at all a bad team down here right now and the Lightning in Nabokov because their current netminders, Dan Ellis and Mike Smith, simply have not performed up to par to this point.
But all parties closely monitoring this story have also pointed out that it isn’t anywhere as simple as general manager Steve Yzerman getting Nabokov to put pen to paper. Rather, there are a multitude of issues and uncertainties potentially preventing as much:
—-What kind of a deal will Nabokov seek? If he’s alright with a one-year contract – satisfied, simply, with being back in the National Hockey League – that’s one thing. But, for the Lightning, anything further is risky. As a 35-year-old, a multi-year deal for the former San Jose Shark would leave Tampa Bay responsible for the cap hit no matter what. That’s shaky ground with Steven Stamkos’ contract extension looming, not to mention several other long-term, inhibiting deals already on the books.
—-Having played in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League already this season, a signed Nabokov must clear waivers before he can suit up for Tampa, or whichever club formalizes a deal for the goaltender’s services. That’s far from a certainty, not with other teams, theoretically anyway, with concerns about their own crease. The Lightning, for instance, might not even be able to get Nabokov past division rival Washington, despite head coach Bruce Boudreau’s insistence that his club is happy with Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov.
—-Considering the waiver complications, Yzerman and the Bolts – if interested – might be better served letting another club do the legwork on a contract with Nabokov and seeing if it is a palatable number before submitting a claim of their own.
—-With Ellis and Smith already in tow in Tampa, adding Nabokov via any avenue forces another netminder out and what, pray tell, do you do there? Ellis is inked through 2011-12 on a two-year, $3-million dollar deal signed this past summer. Shipping him out via trade after 20 appearances in a Lightning uniform wouldn’t be the most comforting message to future free agent signees, though a team has to do what it feels it has to do in the end. Still, that’s likely a moot point, as Ellis’ numbers, like Smith’s, make another team’s willingness to bring either in via trade highly improbable. There’s always the possibility of putting one of the incumbents on waivers and shipping them to AHL Norfolk, but two is already a crowd there with Cedrick Desjardins and Dustin Tokarski splitting time for the Admirals. Why pay Ellis or Smith millions to play the role of third AHL goaltender?
—-Staying the course with Ellis and Smith has been Tampa Bay’s most viable option, despite their struggles, even before Nabokov’s unexpected availability. It aligns with the methodical mantra that Yzerman has employed since day one as Lightning GM and is the least frantic of any possible course of action; absolving the team of having to deal with any of the aforementioned complications. One would think that one or the other would get it together at some point, though that is no guarantee, of course. And while long-term improvement for this club has always been the idea – no one promised a Stanley Cup parade through downtown Tampa in the summer of 2011, remember – this is a pretty good hockey club through a significant portion of its season schedule, regardless of consistently disappointing performances in goal. Just how much better could they be with a stronger presence in the crease?
All things considered, perhaps the greatest strategy of all has already been played here, be it intentional or not. With a tangible veteran option now available should the Lightning see a fit, Ellis and Smith have surely, for the first time, felt some legitimate heat behind any get-better-or-else vibe, what with the Bolts widely recognized as a potential destination for Nabokov.
No matter how they ultimately choose to act, Lightning brass would be wise to stick with the patient approach just a little bit longer to see how the current goalie tandem responds.
If the trends of late carry on, as in the Lightning continuing to yield more goals against than any other team in the league while allowing the second-lowest shot total, that is, at least they can entertain Nabokov as an option at that point.
For now, with the Atlanta Thrashers visiting tonight, Smith gets the first crack at proving even the exploration of as much unnecessary.
Both he and Ellis have had plenty of opportunity to stake their claim as the number one goaltender in Tampa before now and that process continues amid what might end up being fruitless speculation. But the fruit that the Nabokov talk might actually bear, should it indeed serve as a wake-up call to one or even both of the goalies already on the roster, might be of tremendous value after all, with very little in the way of complications.
But if that doesn’t do it…
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