Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper called the decision to waive veteran goaltender Evgeni Nabokov “painful” and likened the process to cut-down day during training camp.
On Sunday, Nabokov was placed on waivers by the Lightning, and rookie goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was recalled from the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch.
Nabokov cleared waivers on Monday, his future in the NHL very much up in the air.
“You dread things like that having to happen,” Cooper said. “…Your heart is going out for guys you’ve gone to war with…It’s an extremely tough situation because of what Nabby meant to myself and to the players in the room.”
Nabokov played in 11 games this season for Tampa Bay and compiled a 3-6-2 record with a 3.15 goals-allowed average and .882 save percentage. His last victory came December 11 when he made stops on 29-of-30 shots to beat Carolina.
“I think we as a team you kind of feel bad because some of those games we didn’t play that great and Nabby’s in there and that probably has a little bit to do with (the decision),” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “It’s tough but it shouldn’t take anything away from Nabby’s career that he’s had in this league. Pretty remarkable what he’s been able to do and still do it at his age. Obviously, we wish him nothing but the best, and I think the thing that stands out for us is just how great of a guy he was.”
A consummate jokester always ready to deliver a timely one-liner, Nabokov was one of the more well-liked players in the Bolts’ locker room and had the respect of all his teammates.
“He’s been such a good guy for me, such a good teammate, always has a smile on his face, always fun to be around,” Lightning goalie Ben Bishop said. “Whenever you lose a good locker room guy or goalie partner, every year you kind of build friendships with the guys you’re with and it was no different this year. I got along really well with him. He’d give me insight here and there which really helped out.”
As a coach entering his third season in the NHL, Cooper said he was able to learn quite a bit from Nabokov, a 14-year veteran of the league.
“He’d seen and done everything,” Cooper said. “He’s seen things I haven’t seen yet. He was helping not only our players but he helped me in areas. He opens your eyes to things. You look at things differently because of his perspective.”
Nabokov had been a starter his whole career until joining Tampa Bay. Sitting behind Bishop was a new experience for the 39-year-old, and the infrequent starts factored in to his uneven play.
“It’s tough when you don’t get to play, and they throw you in,” Bishop said. “You’ve got to come up with a big game, and if you don’t, you’re kind of the scapegoat. I’m sure if he played more games he would have been better, but that’s not the way it worked out. It’s a somber feeling right now. Definitely going to miss him when I’m in St. Louis and I look over and he’s not going to be there.”
Andrei Vasilevskiy was en route to Tampa during Monday’s practice and didn’t arrive inside the Lightning locker room until the team had come off the ice.
Vasilevskiy will travel with the team and be available for a pair of road games this week in St. Louis (Tuesday) and Dallas (Thursday).
The 20-year-old Russian went 3-1 and saved a Lightning rookie record 45 shots in his lone loss during a previous stint with the Bolts this season in December.
After returning to Syracuse and continuing his stellar play in the American Hockey League, the decision was made to recall Vasilevskiy once again.
“I don’t think there was any plan at the beginning of the year to say Andrei Vasilevskiy was going to be up here, but his play kind of dictated what was going to happen,” Cooper said. “Ultimately, he was outstanding in the American League. He came up and he was outstanding for us, and we were kind of waiting for a little lull in the American League. It didn’t happen, and he just continued with his stellar play.”
In 24 games with the Crunch, Vasilevskiiy went 14-5-0 with two shutouts, a .919 save percentage and a 2.38 goals-allowed average.
Cooper said with the team entering a difficult stretch of the schedule with eight of 12 games on the road and three separates sets of back-to-backs, Vasilevskiy won’t be sitting the bench.
“He’s going to get starts,” Cooper said. “We’re not bringing him here not to get starts.”
Stamkos said Vasilevskiy has earned the right to stay at the NHL level.
“You have to hope the changes your management makes are going to be better for the team in the long run, and sometimes it’s hard at the beginning,” he said. “But, I think we’ll be OK.”