Many people in the business believe Nabokov priced himself out of the NHL by looking for between $5 and $6 million per season in a multi-year contract. But Monday morning, as he stood outside his new dressing room inside the Ice Palace, the home of his new team, SKA St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League, the veteran goalie told NHL.com that just isn't true.
"No, you see that's all been speculation," Nabokov said prior to Monday's 5-3 win against the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2010 Compuware NHL Premiere Challenge. "I never said myself that I want this amount of money and I'm not going to play for less. It's never been the issue. My main goal wasn't the money; my main goal was the team who wants my service and maybe the years. Because of my age (35), I wanted a longer term, but we didn't even get to any of that point, so then I said I can't wait longer than that. I had an offer from here and I decided to take a chance."
Nabokov, who signed with SKA for four years and a reported $24 million, still calls San Jose home and said he'll return there when he's done playing because "my kids were born there and I still have a house there." He hasn't cut ties to his friends who still play for the Sharks, and he plans to follow them as best he can even though he's living 11 time zones away from Northern California.
"They are guys who I've been with for so many years and it's hard to just throw it away and say 'I go to Russia and forget you guys,'" Nabokov said. "It's not like that. I'll still follow them."
As for how he feels about his departure from San Jose, Nabokov is trying to be as professional as possible.
"It's a part of the business and sooner or later you're going to be moved, traded or signed as a free agent by somebody else," he said. "It wasn't my choice. It was their choice. They decided to go a different way and that's fine. So, I decided to go my way."
He decided quickly, only seven days into the NHL free-agency signing period, in fact. His abrupt decision to bolt for the KHL raised questions about how willing Nabokov was to negotiate or come down on his asking price, but he said he never got to that point with any team because he wanted what was best for his family.
"As of this moment, this was the best choice," Nabokov said about signing with SKA. "The money wasn't an issue for me whatsoever. I just wanted to go to the team that wanted me and I didn't see much of it (in the NHL), so it was a simple decision for me."
The lukewarm goalie market helped make his decision even easier, Nabokov said. He realized rather quickly that no general manager was willing to give out long-term deals to goalies, especially one who is 35 years old, and he didn't want to sit around too long and wait because then there was no way he was going to get the years he wanted in a contract. No available free-agent goalie this summer signed in the NHL for longer than a two-year term.
"There were a lot of goalies on the market and just not too many jobs available," Nabokov said. "In a perfect world I could wait and see what's happening, but I decided not to, especially when my family was behind me to come here and see Russia a little bit."
The move hasn't paid immediate dividends. Nabokov and SKA haven't gotten off to a strong start. The team has won three straight (Monday's game against Carolina doesn't count), but that was after defensive lapses led them to a 3-3-2 start. Nabokov, who admits he's still adjusting on and off the ice, has won only three of his seven starts, with an .897 save percentage and 2.83 goals-against average.
"Everything is different," he said. "A lot of people ask me the same question, how you compare this and this, and I don't compare it. It's two different hockeys. It's different coaching, different management, different ice rinks. Everything is different. I think it's all because of the ice surface."
SKA plays on the wider international ice surface. The challenges it creates for goalies who are used to the narrower North American rinks are hard to overcome.
"Over here a lot of players, they do try to use more skill with the bigger ice and based on their backgrounds from the hockey schools, so for the goalies I believe it is a tougher adjustment," said former NHL defenseman Sergei Zubov, who transitioned to the KHL with SKA last season. "Every forward out there is trying to beat you one-on-one, but then they'll pass instead of shoot. It's things like that that make it more difficult on him, but it will come. He's a great player, a great athlete and he seems like he's getting better game by game."
Off the ice, Nabokov is trying to get his family used to a new culture. Zubov said the goalie called him prior to signing to ask a lot of questions about family life, school for the kids, etc.
"It's a big adjustment, but everything gets done and hopefully he's going to just focus on the hockey now," Zubov said.
He's trying to.
"I'm still adjusting to how they play defense and the system because the little details are different," Nabokov said. "Sometimes people say it's still the same game of hockey, and it is, but the details of what I was used to for 13 years are different now."