As Islanders practice wound down Monday at Nassau Coliseum, Evgeni Nabokov kept busy in a board meeting with head coach Jack Capuano and assistant coach Brent Thompson. The trio, posted up along the half wall, talked out scenarios and positioning; the wily vet offering a goaltenders’ perspective on D-zone play.
Nabokov, the Islanders resident veteran and goaltender, just wanted to make sure everyone was on the same page in his zone. As a 13-year NHL vet, Nabokov is a steady presence in the Islanders locker room and adds his two cents when he feels it necessary.
“Having him and his voice in our room is an extension of the coaching staff,” Capuano said. “He’s been around a long time and it’s great to have him back around the team.”
Nabokov’s leadership is most needed on the ice, especially in the absence of 37-year-old defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky. Nabokov was stellar in his return to the Islanders crease Saturday against the Montreal Canadiens, stopping 24-of-25 shots and keeping the young Islanders defense poised in a scoreless tie through 60 minutes.
He was in constant communication from the blue paint, directing traffic in the Islanders zone. His voice may not have carried through the glass into the crowd during his first game back from a groin injury, but the d-corps could hear their Russian conscience loud and clear.
“He brings a lot of experience and he’s been in the league for a long time,” Andrew MacDonald said. “He is very vocal back there when he needs his D. He is a strong presence back there.”
After 13 seasons and over 660 NHL games, Nabokov knows what he wants from his defense, how he wants it and when. It’s black and white, and in a split-second league, there’s no time for grey.
“Nabby is very precise in what he wants,” Thomas Hickey said. “As a defenseman, it’s all about guidance and communication. You know what shots to take and which to give up. It makes the game easier.”
After maintaining some distance from the team during his rehab stint, Nabokov’s return to the locker room has been just as important as his return to the ice. Nabokov prefers to keep his role between him and players, but Hickey related Nabokov’s vocal presence to constructive criticism.
“It helps the whole team out,” Hickey said. “He does it to make the team better on the defensive front. He’s not doing it to bring anyone down. And in the dressing room he has that cool demeanor that you look up to.”
Around the rink, he’s upbeat, funny and jokes around with the guys, bridging the age gap. He keeps his head up during hard times, but doesn’t let himself get carried away when he’s playing well either.
Never one for passionate post-game speeches, when Nabokov speaks up in the room, his teammates feel the weight of his words and respect what he has to say.
“He’s been around and been a part of a lot of successful teams. For me, he’s always been a big guy in the room,” Islanders captain John Tavares said.
He may downplay his importance as a veteran to a young locker room, but everyone else speaks so highly of him, he’ll eventually have to acknowledge that he’s a role model.
Especially if they adopt his d-zone coverage.