I’ve sometimes talked about how strange Evgeni Nabokov is in net and more than one person has been confused by this admittedly vague description. Basically, I mean that there is really no one else (left) in the NHL who plays the way he does. So, in the interest of alleviating some of that confusion, here are some of the basic things to look for whenever Nabokov is in net.
To me, you always start with a goalie's feet. The feet are the foundation of playing goal. Everything starts there. For instance, take a look at Nabokov's ready stance. It’s narrow and upright, and looks a bit old fashioned to our eyes used to the width of the modern goalie’s stance.
Compare this to Ben Bishop's stance.
Or to the somewhat less extreme stance of Andrei Vasilevskiy:
Nabokov’s feet are closer together than most goalies these days. The purpose of the wider flare is that it’s easier to get down into the butterfly, you’re already covering a lot of the area you need to cover, and it’s easier to balance your weight. For a goalie who moves up and down a lot, a wide stance can help facilitate that. It does, however, create a hole between the legs.
That doesn’t mean that there is no purpose to having a narrow stance. For one thing, Nabokov tends to stay on his feet more than a goalie like Bishop does. That means that while a narrow stance may take away some of his ability to cover lateral space down low, it gives him access to his skates.
And he uses that. Nabokov is able to make micro-adjustments in his depth and his angles by "wiggling" his skates and shifting his weight into larger movements like C-cuts or simple glides. Thus he gains the ability to set up early on a shot and then move inches at a time to his right, left, or backwards without opening up or shifting his weight much at all.
For example, on this faceoff, note how close together Nabokov’s feet are. Without creating any holes, he can simply move in very small, controlled increments backwards and to his left to cover the changing angle as play drops towards the bottom of the faceoff circle. [If you have access to Game Center Live, I recommend finding this play and just watching Nabokov's movement.]
This narrow stance is carried over into his butterfly.
Again, compare this to Ben Bishop:
In the following sequence, you can see the movement from the narrow butterfly into an extension toe save. This is how shooters are increasingly playing goalies these days. There are certain calculated risks in each save selection, and the depth on this butterfly sequence is exactly the kind of thing a smart player will be able to exploit.
If Nabokov were deeper, he could take some space away from the attacking forward. [He wasn’t deep because the initial shot came from the center point, not from close in.] Goalies who play at this depth are depending on their defense to get in and remove the threat. No one does and Travis Zajac has time to recover two rebounds before getting around the extended leg. Nabokov simply can’t push any further to his left because he has no way to load his right leg.
There are other ways that Nabokov departs from growing trends in NHL goaltending. One is his approach to post-integration (how a goalie uses and deals with the goal posts). Even as the Reverse VH is sweeping the league, Nabokov uses it sparingly, relying more often on a post lean or a butterfly lean.
Again, I'm using Bishop for comparison, but the use of the RVH is very common these days in dead-angle situations. The post-side pad is along the ice and the goalie uses the back leg to help drive his weight into the post to seal that gap.
In a similar situation, Nabokov might choose a post lean, where he stays on his skates for added mobility while blocking the top of the net with his shoulder.
Or he might use a butterfly lean. In either case an active stick and glove are critical to success.
He does utilize the RVH, just not very often. Plus, Bishop (and other goalies) will also utilize other post integration techniques than the RVH. In terms of tendencies, however, Nabokov seems less likely to use the newer RVH than many other goalies. It's important to note that he's not the only one to do this; Pekka Rinne favors a post lean and uses the RVH only sparingly as well. The common denominator here is a preference for staying up on skates in dead-angle situations. Bishop uses the RVH quite a bit.
None of these differences are in and of themselves poor choices. They're all tools and the more tools you have the better. They're just different from what you'll see other goaltenders do and in some cases they're tools that are less common now than they used to be. In all cases, a goaltender needs to be comfortable with whatever choices they make, know why they're making that choice, and know when that choice is appropriate.
Nabokov brings other strengths with him, like superior puck handling skills and a veteran ability to read plays. He has a reputation for a quick glove but in the three games he's played with the Lightning it hasn't been a strong part of his game. While he doesn't have a bad glove these days, if you're interested in glove work, go watch Carey Price or Pekka Rinne.
So what happened in Minnesota? Why were the Wild able to score on Nabokov when the Devils and the Flames weren't? Three of the goals occurred because Nabokov was late in reacting to both plays and shots. Every goal he's given up this season has been on the left side, but only in Minnesota were those goals due to a late rising glove.
The worst goal he gave up this season (Minnesota's second goal) was due to a poor choice of save and a poor execution of that save selection.
Everyone has bad days. Nabokov had one in Minnesota. A really, really bad day. I'd like to be able to tell you that there won't be very many of those in coming weeks and months but that's not knowable. Based on his recent history, he'll have more of those than he wants, even as he manages to pull out some very interesting wins.