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Howard explains why Nabokov fits the Red Wings

Howard explains why Nabokov fits the Red Wings


Detroit Goalie Jimmy Howard

Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard may not look like Evgeni Nabokov with that low, wide stance, but his uniquely aggressive initial positioning outside the crease is similar to where Nabokov likes to play. (Tom Paille photo)

Jimmy Howard obviously didn’t know it at the time, but as Detroit’s then-unquestioned No.1 goalie talked in early January about finding his game after a rough December, he was also making a pretty good case for why Evgeni Nabokov would probably be a good fit with the Red Wings.

Three weeks later, with Nabokov signed to a $570,000 contract and the hockey world turning itself inside out trying to figure out if – and if so, how – that deal will allow the Russian to ever play a game with the Winged Wheel on his chest, Howard’s conversation with InGoal Magazine is worth revisiting.

It won’t solve the will-he, won’t-he waiver wire questions surrounding Nabokov, but it should shed some light on why the Wings feel its worth the risk to try.

The key is where Howard rediscovered his game: Atop the crease. In fact, Howard spends more time two, sometimes even three, feet outside the blue ice than any NHL goaltender west of Martin Brodeur.

It’s a title he would have shared before Nabokov left for the KHL last summer.

“If they are going to get a goal I want them to work for it,” Howard said after a Jan. 8 win over Vancouver. “It was a long month of December for me with a lot of bad bounces, and instead of the puck playing me I just decided enough is enough and just get out there and be aggressive and get to the puck before it changes directions.”

Howard said his over-aggressive positioning is possible for two reasons: The first is a set of quick feet and surprisingly explosive lateral movements for a goalie who locks in so low and wide in his stance. The second is a strong defense and a team system that stresses taking away the backdoor options that teams target trying to both catch Howard too far out, and to push him back in his crease and back outside his comfort zone.

“I’ve got a great defensive crew with me and I know they are going to take care of that backdoor,” Howard told InGoal. “Coach [Mike] Babcock stresses that, so you know the goalie has the shooter and you pick up everything backdoor, and that allows not only myself but also Chris [Osgood] to be more aggressive.”

All of which makes the Red Wings a great fit for Nabokov’s preferred style and positioning.

Nabokov Goalie

Evgeni Nabokov's Trademark upright position. Photo by Dinur Blum

Nabokov spent most of his 10 seasons in San Jose playing well outside the blue ice, even when the Sharks defense wasn’t good enough to provide the same kind of safety net he’d enjoy in Detroit (especially if the Red Wings every get healthy). He definitely doesn’t look or move like Howard – the trademark image of Nabokov preparing for a faceoff with his pads stacked upright is symbolic of a simple-but-powerful style criticized by some and misunderstood my most outside the puck-stopping fraternity. But Nabokov generates explosive lateral movement from that upright stance, which allows him to create speed with long extensions on his T-pushes.

Nabokov’s patient, on-the-skates approach to puck-stopping is also perfect fit with the teaching of Wings goalie coach Jim Bedard, who has been around long enough not to try and change some of the technical deficiencies in Nabokov’s game. That’s important since the veteran Russian has made it clear to InGoal in the past that he has no intention of altering a style that includes the ability to mix it up on shooters by staying “up,” using an active stick to revive the lost art of the pokecheck, and even stacking the pads from time to time.

“I don’t think there are many others like me because now everybody butterflies,” Nabokov said during his last season in San Jose. “But you’re not going to change how I plays after all these years.”

Nabokov noticed former playing partner Miikka Kiprusoff blossom from third-stringer in San Jose to Vezina Trophy winner in Calgary after adding modern post-save recoveries – namely the idea of proper, or power, leg and lateral pushes using it – to impeccable positioning also imbedded by their old coach, Warren Strelow. But Nabokov’s more old-school style is not without merit. His tight stance leaves him with a lot more extension in his legs, which he uses to drive one of the fastest, most powerful lateral moves in the NHL. And his exceptional footwork and flexibility allows him to do so without first having to rotate. Add in his ability to read the play – and through an extension of that the patience not to react prematurely to it – and Nabokov is able to maintain an aggressive depth longer than many of his counterparts, taking up more net than a 6-foot, 200-pound frame might otherwise allow.

Yes, there are times that includes getting up from the butterfly on the “wrong leg” but he does it so quickly – and while already starting his own skate based move back across the crease – that when you analyze recovery time frame-by-frame beside most butterfly pushes, the difference is immeasurable.

“There are so many good goalies with so many different styles. If you start concentrating on what they’re doing, instead of focusing on your game, it could get into your head,” Nabokov said. “I never once asked myself; ‘What if I played this type of style or made this type of save.’ I just feel I’d get lost. I know exactly what I need to do.”

For Nabokov, that has usually included playing on top of the crease, a position that fits the Red Wings.

He is also familiar with the Detroit system after playing his last two seasons with the Sharks under former Detroit assistant Todd McLellan, who brought a lot of Red Wings tactics with him to San Jose. Provided he hasn’t lost what was a great ability to read and react after a few months in the pass-first (and second and third and fourth), shoot-never KHL, and another month off the ice, Nabokov should make a smooth transition.

If his own job wasn’t on the line, we’re pretty sure Jimmy Howard would agree.

About The Author

Kevin Woodley

Kevin Woodley is a rec-league target and former contributing editor of the Goalie News magazine. He has written about the Vancouver Canucks and NHL for The Associated Press, USA Today, Sports Illustrated and The Hockey News for the last decade, and covered the 2010 Olympics for The AP.