What a difference two weeks can make.
On December 11th, Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Dan Ellis was coming off of a shaky 5-4 overtime victory over the Vancouver Canucks. He had let in a questionable shot by defenseman Keith Ballard to knot the game late in regulation and despite picking up the win, once again lost his starting job to Mike Smith.
This has been an ongoing saga in Tampa this season. One netminder will play well in several contests, only to be shelled after a few and find himself on the bench for the next game.
At this particular juncture of the season, Ellis has gone 2-1-1 in four starts after relieving Smith in the third period of an 8-1 demolition to the Bruins in Boston to begin December.
Talk among many in Lightning Nation revolved around GM Steve Yzerman’s need to acquire a true number one goalie and coincidentally, an elite-level goalkeeper became available a day later.
Evgeni Nabokov, who starred for the San Jose Sharks for ten NHL seasons but signed a free agent deal to play in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia this past summer, was released by his St. Petersburg club due to “family reasons”.
Yzerman has maintained that he will stick with the Ellis-Smith tandem and let them play their way through their issues.
But the talk of Nabokov leaving St. Petersburg to play home games at St. Pete Times Forum won’t go away.
In Lyle Richardson’s Christmas Eve edition of Spectors Hockey Trade Rumors site, it is noted that Kevin Baumer of Business Insider has Nabokov linked to several NHL teams, one of which is Tampa Bay. Baumer even went as far as to state that Nabokov’s father said “the Lightning were his son’s preference.”
But there are three key factors that are playing into Yzerman’s patient approach:
1) Success – After 36 contests, the Bolts hold the top spot in the Southeast Division. With a 21-10-5 mark, Tampa Bay also sits in the second slot in the Eastern Conference. An average to less-than average performance in the crease would require much more of a necessity to upgrade quickly if the Bolts were in the lower ranks of the standings.
When a team plays that well and is 11 points ahead of the ninth place club – the last in the conference to make the postseason dance – Yzerman can afford to have a wait-and-see attitude with his goaltenders.
2) Stamkos’ pending RFA – With the Lightning’s superstar Steven Stamkos in the final year of his $3.725 million entry-level contact, Yzerman knows that he is going to have to come up with a massive raise for “Stammer”.
Even though Tampa has in excess of $11 million in available cap space for the remainder of this season, Yzerman is only *$21.7 million under the maximum with just 12 players signed for the 2011-12 campaign (*if the upper cap limit remains $59.4 million – salary numbers via CapGeek.com).
That leaves at least 11 players to be signed, and Stamkos’ deal will be eat up a good portion of what is left. Adding Nabokov would definitely take another huge chunk out of that number. With Ellis inked through next season for $1.5 million and Smith set to become an unresticted free agent next summer, Nabby would be an expensive addition. He would probably see an increase over Smith’s $2.2 million salary for 2010-11.
3) Better play from the existing netminders – Since the December 11th game in which Ellis gave up four goals, both Smith and Ellis have played much better. In the six contests following the win in Vancouver, the Bolts have yielded just 10 goals, and Tampa has posted a 5-0-1 record in those games.
Smith gave up one goal in each contest in winning both games after the victory over the Canucks, but Ellis was pressed into starting duties when Smith suffered a knee injury prior to the next game with the Carolina Hurricanes. Ellis has been excellent in the last four, going 3-0-1, and allowing only eight goals.
Ellis has also been clutch for the Bolts. Included in the recent four game stretch is an 11-round shootout win against the New York Rangers and an overtime triumph over the division-rival Atlanta Thrashes. His one loss was in overtime to the New York Islanders.
It’s not set in stone that Yzerman will stand pat and not make any move, but there is no doubt that he will ensure that his club has the best possible goaltending by the time the NHL Trade Deadline rolls around.
Nabokov could end up in the Blue, black, and white, but there is plenty of time to see how things play out for the Lightning.
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