Sharks have embarrassment of riches in goal

Updated: November 11, 2005, 9:59 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

At some point in a chapel homily or a classroom lecture, one of the Dominican priests who run Providence College might have dropped in this bit of philosophy after getting beyond the order's belief in the compatibility of faith and reason:

"Sometimes life isn't fair."

At age 25, and two years after the end of his four-season Providence career, former Friars goaltender Nolan Schaefer has had that lesson driven home.

Called up from Cleveland of the American Hockey League during a Sharks' injury siege, all Schaefer has done is go 5-1 for San Jose with what now passes for an impressively stingy goals-against average of 1.98.

Yet with veteran goalies Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala both back on the active roster, Schaefer is on the verge of being sent back to Cleveland. And this phenomenon isn't even unique to this season for the Sharks, who previously saw both Nabokov and Toskala come up through the organization and prove themselves under fire as in-season callups.

Too many goaltenders?

"I'll deal with this kind of problem all the time," Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said with a laugh. "It's a great problem to have and a credit first of all to our scouts and Wayne Thomas and Warren Strelow, who do a great job of identifying and then nurturing goaltenders for this organization. I think they're as good as anybody in this league at that.''

Thomas, Wilson's assistant general manager, was an NHL goalie for nine seasons with the Canadiens, Maple Leafs and Rangers. The highly respected Strelow is in his third NHL stop as a goaltending coach, and while the Sharks' attention to the position in the scouting and coaching process certainly isn't revolutionary or unprecedented, it can't be an accident that they keep spotting and developing talent from within.

The new collective bargaining agreement's ultimate effect on the importance of "home-grown" talent is open to debate, but San Jose had drafted two-thirds of the players on its opening-night roster -- the highest total in the league. Only Ottawa (61 percent) also had drafted the majority of players on its opening-night roster.

"Competition is the greatest motivation," said Wilson, the former defenseman who still has all his wits about him despite his seasons as a helmetless holdout. "When people are coming through the system, it's another way of keeping everyone motivated. When a goalie comes up and plays like this, number one, it shows that Nolan was ready to play and worked hard. Nolan has played very well. Number two, and I like to point this out without intending it to lessen anything he has done, it also says the people around him who might have been making a lot of mistakes in their own end have responded and tightened up."

Schaefer played six games in 11 days before Toskala, who had been out with a groin injury, returned to the crease in a 5-2 loss to the Avalanche in Denver on Tuesday. Nabokov, who had been battling a shoulder problem, came off the injured list the same day and might be able to play as soon as Saturday against Dallas.

So Schaefer could be back in a Barons uniform and have another chance to tour the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame again in the next few days.

"The big thing is getting the confidence to know you can play at this level," Schaefer told reporters the other day in Denver. "No matter where I am, I'm going to work hard for my next opportunity."

Once everyone is completely healthy, Wilson said, the Sharks won't consider carrying three goalies. "Goaltenders have to play," he said. "Nolan's in a good situation, with a two-way contract, and he's also played very well. Our decision will be basked on winning games. When healthy, Evgeni will remain our No. 1 guy. We have all the confidence in the world in Vesa, too."

Toskala was sufficiently highly regarded in the organization in 2002 that the Sharks played hardball with Nabokov in contract negotiations. In fact, many thought San Jose would be fine with Toskala and Miikka Kiprusoff in the 2002-03 season, but when the Sharks lost four of their first five and the two Finns allowed nearly five goals a game, Nabokov suddenly had more leverage. And Kiprusoff ended up going 5-14 that season before the Sharks shipped him to Calgary in the fall of 2003.

Two years later, though, it is clear Kiprusoff also was a star in waiting -- though it took a second chance with the Flames to confirm that.

Three years later, the Sharks again appear well-stocked.

"We do have a richness of goaltenders," said Wilson. "I'm happy when they're calling me. That's better than not having any players anybody wants to ask about."

Will he listen to those offers?

"I listen to everybody," Wilson said.

The Sharks' goaltending drama has played out during an up-and-down first six weeks of the season that have left hanging the verdict on whether San Jose's stand-pat offseason strategy, widely noticed and sometimes criticized, was wise. With the Sharks' impressive speed and noticeable youth, plus a nice mix of veterans, they seemed primed to both take advantage of the roster's maturation and the new rules and obstruction crackdown. So far, though, the Sharks have been maddeningly mercurial and mistake-prone.

"We think were in a situation that was very similar to the ones in Ottawa or Tampa. Tampa has [Brad] Richards and [Vinny] Levacalier, and they're about the same age as Patrick Marleau and Jonathan Cheechoo. In that kind of a situation, you're primarily concerned with retaining those players.

"Did we look? Yes. We tried to get Scott Niedermayer, but that didn't work out. We looked, but no more than we always do. Every day's the trade deadline for me."

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."