With the news breaking yesterday that Evgeni Nabokov was returning to North America for personal reasons after signing in Russia in the off-season, speculation began almost immediately about where, if anywhere, Nabokov would end up back in the NHL. One of the teams that was mentioned almost immediately was Tampa Bay where both Dan Ellis and Mike Smith have struggled to keep pucks out of the net this season.
Today, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman spoke about Nabokov in a polite manner as to whether or not there’s mutual interest to be had there. Craig Custance of The Sporting News heard from Stevie Y and about what, if anything of importance, was discussed between himself and Nabokov’s North American agent Don Meehan.
“(Meehan’s) got a guy who is an unrestricted free-agent goaltender. It’s safe to assume that he’s going to look around the league at all the clubs where there may be interest and call those teams,” Yzerman told Sporting News. “He’s doing his job.”
While acknowledging the Lightning’s goaltending has to get better, Yzerman said he’s still not counting out improvement from Ellis and Smith as the ultimate solution.
“I have two goalies here working hard every day trying to improve,” he said. “We have to improve. There’s lots of different ways to improve and that includes sticking with our own people.”
Tampa Bay is doing well this year sitting just three points back of Washington in the Southeast Division and they’ve been doing it without getting much help in goal. Both Ellis and Smith’s numbers this season are less-than optimal for a starting goalie in the NHL. Ellis checks in with a .876 save percentage and a 3.23 goals against average with two shutouts through 20 games. Meanwhile, in 15 games Smith has a .872 save percentage and a 3.57 goals against average.
Through 30 games, the Lightning have given up 106 goals, the most in the NHL. If the Lightning plan on being a playoff team, those numbers have to improve either from having Ellis or Smith snap out of their collective funk or by bringing in a guy who can get it done now. At 35 years-old Nabokov has a ton of experience and has the NHL know-how but his season this year with SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL was less-than optimal.
In 22 games, Nabokov put up a .888 save percentage and a 3.02 goals against. Those are underwhelming numbers considering the level of competition. Whether the distractions from any possible family issues played into that or if it was just poor play it’s tough to gauge, but at the moment, Tampa Bay certainly looks like a team that could use any kind of help in goal.