Keeping both Nabokov, Toskala could hurt Sharks

Updated: November 16, 2006, 6:51 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

There have been the inevitable upsets this season, but this is one of the biggest: The San Jose Sharks haven't yet traded Evgeni Nabokov or Vesa Toskala. The Kazakhstani and the Finn are sharing the workload in the net, co-existing and trying to avoid either fanning the flames of controversy or overreacting to rumors.

"It's out of my control right now, and I'd prefer not to talk about it," Nabokov said Wednesday night in Denver after he made 40 saves in a 4-3 victory over the Avalanche. "Whatever's going on is going on. I just try to go out and do my best and not think about other stuff."

Evgeni Nabokov
James Guillory-US PRESSWIREEvgeni Nabokov's no-trade clause could be a hindrance for some NHL teams that are shopping for help in net.

Does that include the trade rumors?

"I don't know," he said, smiling. "You tell me where I'm going or who's going where."

Uh, well ...

Because Nabokov has a no-trade clause in the contract that runs through the 2009-10 season, he won't be completely blindsided and would have to be consulted.

As this drags on, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson is in a position of strength, and the presence of Nolan Schaefer at Worcester of the AHL (he went 5-1 with a 1.88 goals-against average last season with the Sharks when both Nabokov and Toskala were injured) makes a trade even more inevitable.

Wouldn't you think?

The funny thing is that this has been the state of affairs for the Sharks for over a year. And nothing has happened, at least with the goalies.

Nabokov hasn't gone to Boston for Glen Murray, or to Phoenix. Not yet.

Neither he nor Toskala has gone to Philadelphia. Not yet.

(Add rumor du jour here.)

"Obviously, there's a lot of speculation," Doug Wilson said. "I take every call. That's just part of the job. We're very pleased with the way [Nabokov and Toskala] have played, and the way they've both been healthy."

The GM added: "The way the game is, with the travel and competition, it's a good situation to be in. I can't speak for other teams, but you see other teams, like Anaheim and Buffalo, that are in similar situations. Carolina probably wouldn't have won the Cup without two goaltenders. We have two quality guys who have great respect for each other. They understand we're all about winning, and they help us win games."

The Sharks were 14-6-0 after the win over the careening Avalanche on Wednesday night, but something happened in the game that might complicate matters. Jonathan Cheechoo suffered a left leg or knee injury in a second-period pileup in front of the Colorado net and was helped off in obvious pain. It didn't look good, but the Sharks weren't providing many hints about the possible prognosis.

"We'll take him home and talk to the doctor," said Sharks coach Ron Wilson. "It's a lower-body injury." (For the record, the way Wilson said that, almost as if he was making fun of his own vagueness, he was providing his own italics.)

How low?

"I don't know," Ron Wilson said. "It's low. Low enough."

If it's not as bad as it looked, that won't change Doug Wilson's picky parameters. If Cheechoo is out long, though, it could increase the GM's incentive for dealing one of the goalies for another top forward, whether Murray or someone else.

Vesa Toskala
Rick Scuteri/US PresswireThrough Wednesday's games, Vesa Toskala has a 9-2 record for the Sharks.

"When you look at our team, the way we are now, we think we could be a lot better, but we're in the top three or four in the league in points, and our special teams have finally picked it up," Doug Wilson said before Cheechoo's injury. "Our power play is No. 1 in the league, the [penalty kill] is nine. We're OK with our record, we think we've played well, but we think we can play a whole lot better. We're only at the 20-game mark now, so we'll see."

All of this also seems to be putting off the inevitable, because if the Sharks are, as they sure seem to be, bona fide threats to emerge from the Western Conference, they would be better off settling on a No. 1. (We missed Toskala after Wednesday's game to pose the suggestion to him ourselves.)

Last season, Ron Wilson went with Toskala in the postseason, and the Sharks ended up falling to the Oilers in six games, with the Finn posting substandard numbers (2.78 GAA, .897 save percentage) in the series. So far this season, Toskala is 9-2, but otherwise, his stats are only marginally better than Nabokov's so far this season.

"They've been great," said Sharks captain Patrick Marleau, himself off to a terrific start, with 12 goals and 11 assists through 20 games. "There's no tension, no anger between them. I think they know what it is right now, they're going to play every other game, and they're just concentrating on that."

Nabokov's $5 million salary is in that gray area, a reasonable slice of the cap-produced pie for any team if he is playing the majority of the time and playing well. It's out of proportion to his contributions if neither of those is true. All of that, plus his no-trade clause, loom over all of the inquiries and discussions. Anyone trading for him would have to be thinking of him as the undisputed No. 1, the playoff goalie.

The Sharks would be better off if Nabokov comes on and they instead end up trading Toskala to a goalie-starved franchise while he still is playing often and well enough to keep his value relatively high.

Doug Wilson could wait until the Feb. 27 trade deadline, of course, but it might remove some of the drama and intrigue (both of which can be distracting) if they make the deal sooner, rather than later. They're in the toughest division in the league, playing 16 games against Dallas and Anaheim, meaning they could be artificially low-seeded in the conference if they don't win the division. (That is, they either could be better than a team from another division with more points, or they could be fourth at best because the division winners are guaranteed the top three seeds -- or both.)

"There are no easy games," the GM said. "What we want to do is win the Stanley Cup, so we think playing against the best teams on a nightly basis is good for us. In the playoffs the last two years, our players have experienced what it takes, and the commitments and the little things you have to do. We like where we're at, but it's still a work in progress.

"We've got a group that has had some success, not the ultimate success. We've brought in a couple of people we think have really helped. Mike Grier is a real pro, and what he's done, not only in our penalty killing, but showing guys the commitment, blocking shots, the things good teams do. Curtis Brown has come in and done the same thing. Mark Bell has come in and added a physical presence for us. All I can say is that I wish we had all three of those players in the Edmonton series last year."

Marleau even played some on the point Wednesday after Cheechoo went out, and the Sharks got the power play back on track after going 0-8 in the previous two games. Joe Thornton, playing with strep throat, and Marleau had goals only 17 seconds apart, the first on a 5-on-3 and the second with Colorado's Brett Clark still in the box.

"We've got two lines of guys that can build a power play and sometimes wear another team's penalty killers down," said Ron Wilson. "I would say 85 percent of the teams in the league can come at you with one stacked unit, and we can almost do it two times. That makes a big difference. Your first unit maybe doesn't get the job done and your secondary unit comes out there fresh and is against tired penalty killers."

Each season, the elite 1-2 center depth is going to be more rare, and the Sharks this season are paying nearly $11 million to the reigning Hart Trophy winner, Thornton ($6.67 million), and Marleau ($4 million).

"We're fortunate they're at the right age," said Doug Wilson. "They're both coming into their primes. They're big, they're physical, they can skate. They haven't accomplished everything they want to accomplish. Again, I think their best hockey is coming up right now, and they're part of a fun group to be around. Chemistry is a word that's used a lot, but they all have goals collectively. They had a taste of it last year. They see teams we have great respect for, the Carolinas and Tampas, winning Cups, and I think they're thinking, 'OK, why can't that be us?'"

If they can settle on a No. 1 goalie and trade the other for a quality skater, that will get them closer.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

Terry Frei

Special to ESPN.com
Terry Frei is a columnist for the Denver Post. He is also the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."