By Nick Nollenberger | AHL On The Beat
Evgeni Nabokov spent 10 seasons in San Jose, setting nearly every single Sharks’ goaltending record during his decade-long stretch in teal.
Nabby, as he’s referred to by hundreds of hockey fans, ended his illustrious playing career in 2015 after stints in San Jose, New York (Islanders), and Tampa Bay. He left a lasting impression on the Bay Area and inspired young kids around the world to want to play goalie.
Now with his playing career in the rearview mirror, the 42-year-old is still making his mark. In 2015, the Sharks hired Nabokov as their goaltending development coach, working primarily with the Barracuda, its AHL affiliate.
Nabokov never thought about coaching, but he notes it kind of fell into his lap after the Sharks moved their AHL team to California in 2015.
“When I was presented with the idea of coaching, I thought I’d try it out and see if I liked it,” said Nabokov. “One day I didn’t come, and the goalies were asking where I was at. So you feel connected with the guys and you build these relationships and you realize that you enjoy it.”
With a constant smile and contagious laugh on the ice, Nabokov has combined the relentless work ethic that made him one of the game’s greats with a happy-go-lucky coaching style. More so than his resume, what makes Nabokov so successful is his genuine care for each and every player he works with, and the players recognize that.
“Nabby is one of the best goalies of his era, if not of all time,” said Barracuda goaltender Troy Grosenick. “It’s definitely very special working with him, he sees the game so well… it’s amazing to be able to bounce ideas back-and-fourth with him… he’s made a huge impact on my career.”
Nabokov has played a huge role in turning what was considered a thin position in the Sharks organization just a couple of years ago, into one of its deepest.
A season ago, Grosenick was the AHL’s Goaltender of the Year (Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award), and Aaron Dell, whom Nabokov worked with in 2015-16 with the Barracuda, went 11-6-1 with the San Jose Sharks in his first year in the NHL.
“We go through a routine everyday, whether that’s watching video or getting a little warm up in, but to be honest, all it is is me being there for them,” said Nabokov. “If they have a question, if they need something that they want to work on, I’m there.”
“He’s a legend,” said Dell. “If he didn’t know what he was talking about he wouldn’t have been around as long as he was.”
This season, Antoine Bibeau, who’s been splitting time with Grosenick after being signed as a free agent by the Sharks this offseason, ranks near the top of all major goaltending statistical categories in the AHL, and he credits Nabokov with his early resurgence.
“It’s pretty special working with a guy like that everyday… his career speaks for itself,” said Bibeau when asked about being coached by Nabokov. “He’s a great guy too, and he’s really funny. We work hard, but we make sure its fun, too.”
The goaltending position is ever-evolving, so Nabokov continues to combine his experiences with current-day techniques to improve his players and his coaching.
“You’ve got to look at the trends and see what other goalies that are having success are doing. But not everything will fit every guy, so you have to take their strength and use that to help them get better every single day,” said Nabokov.
Nabokov’s “one size does not fit all” approach has allowed for each goaltender to exceed their expectations and excel.
“Look how many different goalies there are in the league, different body shapes, and different styles of play… what works for one guy doesn’t guarantee it will work for another and Nabby is so good at pulling stuff from different players and incorporating that into my game if he sees fit,” said Grosenick.