Sharks’ Nabokov’s Growth As Goalie Coach Fuels Barracuda Netminder’s Turnaround
SAN JOSE — Former-Sharks netminder Evgeni Nabokov knows how good it feels to pitch a shutout, win a Stanley Cup playoff game and score an NHL goal from inside the crease.
Now, he’s learning just how rewarding it can be to witness another goalie’s success from behind the bench.
When Nabokov signed on as the Sharks goaltending development coach in July 2015, he viewed the job as an opportunity to stay close to the game he loves, enjoy the camaraderie of the locker room and pass on some pointers to the organization’s top-goalie prospects. He didn’t necessarily envision the journey he would be taking with netminder Troy Grosenick, who’s putting together an incredible comeback season with the Barracuda, leading the AHL in goals-average (1.97), save percentage (.934) and shutouts (seven).
“I got sucked in,” Nabokov joked. “It’s like with your own kid, you start working on something and it gets hard to stop. You get passion for it.”
“It’s different than playing, but when you’re encouraging someone to try different things and you see change, it feels good.”
Although Nabokov’s relationship with Grosenick might now be described as father-son-like, the coach and goalie butted heads last season as the former was getting adjusted to his new role with the Sharks organization and the latter was struggling through a subpar season with the Barracuda.
After he pitched a 45-save shutout in his NHL debut on Nov. 16, 2014, Grosenick was supposed to be the next in line for the Sharks backup goalie job behind Alex Stalock, who struggled in that role last season.
But Grosenick’s comeback from concussion issues that sidelined him for much of the 2014-15 season quickly hit a snag as he surrendered three or more goals in 12 of his first 17 starts last season, ceding the Barracuda’s No. 1 goalie job to Aaron Dell.
As Grosenick teetered, Nabokov asked him to be more patient in the crease, relying on his positioning instead of his athleticism. But the young goalie struggled to adapt to the new playing style, stirring frustration amongst the coach and the player.
“I don’t think they were happy with one another at a certain point last year, but that’s coaching,” head coach Roy Sommer said.
Grosenick acknowledged that his relationship with Nabokov is “a lot smoother” this season.
“He’s obviously known what he’s doing the whole time, it’s just he’s gotten better at getting the message across,” Grosenick said. “He’s definitely more patient. He realizes that things don’t change overnight as much as we might want them to.”
As Grosenick watched Dell carry the Barracuda into the Calder Cup playoffs last winter, he and Nabokov had a heart to heart conversation that changed his approach to the game.
“About halfway through last year, we sort of turned a corner,”Grosenick said. “That’s when I said to myself, I’m just going to control what I control. He put that mindset in me and then he did some extra work hooking me up with Adam (Francilia) in British Columbia.”
After clearing the air, Nabokov went the extra mile, setting Grosenick up with Francilia, a goalie guru based out of British Columbia who also turned around the careers of James Reimer of the Florida Panthers and Devan Dubnyk of the Minnesota Wild.
Nabokov discovered Francilia by reading an article about his unique-training style and then he made a personal trip up to Canada to meet with the coach and learn more about his program.
“I really believe that unless you put the time in you’re not going to get the results,” Nabokov said. “But it’s on him. He could have easily said, no, I’m working somewhere else. When you see that the goalie is willing to put in the time, I’m willing to give him my time, too.”
With Francilia, Grosenick dove into plyometric training, working on the body movements that are integral to goaltending, which ultimately improved his positioning in the crease.
The offseason work paid off quickly once the season kicked up in October as Grosenick pitched a shutout in his second start of the year before putting together a shutout streak of 248:08 in November and December.
Grosenick eventually earned an invitation to the AHL All-Star Classic.
“Nabby’s done a great job, look at Grossy, he’s money now,” Sommer said. “Once you get your point across, and the player starts understanding that you’re trying to help them, all of a sudden the light goes off. I’ve seen that a lot.”
Although Nabokov is playing a key role in Grosenick’s snapback campaign, the goalie coach is giving all the credit to his player. Nevertheless, Nabokov acknowledges that the experience has taught him a thing or two over his first 18 months of coaching.
“The easiest thing you can do is just pick (a player) apart and tell them how bad they are,” Nabokov said. “It’s a little bit harder to encourage them to do different things, but when you see them change, it does feel good.”