Marc Denis, Evgeni Nabokov, and “what could have been” – the 2000 Expansion Draft

Arguably the most important expansion draft pick in recent NHL history was in 1993, when Florida took goalie John Vanbiesbrouck from Vancouver.  Of course, Vanbiesbrouck never played for the Canucks; he was acquired a few days before the expansion draft specifically to be claimed.

Vanbiesbrouck’s play with the Panthers in their early years was most likely the sole difference between them contending for the playoffs and contending for last place in the league.  And in 1995-96, when the team stunned the hockey world and made it to the Stanley Cup Final in just their third year, it was Vanbiesbrouck who led the way.

The idea of a single goaltender as the make-or-break player on a team has shifted slightly over the years, but we did see just last season (2015-16) what can happen when a top-level goalie goes down.  Montreal’s Carey Price led the team to a 17-4-2 record over the first two months of the season, then was lost for the year with a knee injury.  Without Price, Montreal went 13 games under .500 the rest of the way and finished out of the playoffs by a sizable margin.

This particular essay will focus on the 2000 NHL Expansion Draft, which I haven’t gotten into any real depth on because of lingering discrepancies in the information available.  This will focus on goaltending available to both incoming teams: the Minnesota Wild and the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Nashville in 1998 had the chance to take Mike Dunham, widely believed to be a future franchise goalie.  Atlanta had the chance to acquire more quality goalies than Nashville had, although none with the ceiling of Dunham.  But in 2000, there was a chance to acquire goalies with a high ceiling who were still young enough to have nearly their whole careers in front of them.

As with the 1998 and 1999 expansion drafts, existing teams had the option of protecting one goalie and then five defensemen and nine forwards, or two goalies and three defenseman and seven forwards.  Unlike 1999, a team that lost a goalie in a previous expansion draft would not be exempt from losing one.

Leading up to the expansion draft, several existing teams made deals that involved goalies:

  • Chicago traded Steve Passmore to Los Angeles for a 4th-round pick
  • Tampa Bay traded Kevin Hodson to Montreal for a 7th-round pick
  • Tampa Bay traded Rich Parent to Ottawa for a 7th-round pick

In each of these cases, the acquiring team would leave the new goalie unprotected.

For Columbus and Minnesota, there looked to be several young goalies that would be available for the expansion teams.  Among them, San Jose had a 25-year-old native of Kazakhstan named Evgeni Nabokov, Dallas had 25-year-old Manny Fernandez, Buffalo had 22-year-old Martin Biron, Colorado had 22-year-old David Aebischer and 23-year-old Marc Denis, Calgary had 23-year-old Jean-Sebastien Giguere, and Montreal had 24-year-old Eric Fichaud.

Each of these seven goalies was generally regarded as being on a similar plane, with varying positives and concerns that would cause a given team to shuffle these into a different order.  Among them:

  • Nabokov was 25, had three seasons in North America, and was all over the place.  In 1998-99, he had unexpectedly broken through with the Kentucky Thoroughblades of the AHL, but lagged behind Sean Gauthier’s team save percentage despite a much better win-loss record.  Nabokov only had also played 33 total games in 1999-00: 11 in the NHL with San Jose, 2 with Kentucky, and 20 while on loan to the Cleveland Lumberjacks of the IHL.  His NHL games were mostly in relief, and that was also his only NHL action to date.
  • Fichaud was 24, a former 1st-round pick (1994 by Toronto), and had become a journeyman of sorts.  He was regarded as a future franchise goalie in 1996, but had an up-and-down two seasons with the Islanders and was soon traded to Edmonton.  From there he was traded to first-year Nashville, then to Carolina for a draft pick, then Montreal picked him up off waivers.  He had the bad fortune of no stability and not quite playing well enough to get an extended look.  In five years, he’d been in five NHL organizations, none of whom were Stanley Cup contenders.
  • Fernandez was 25, soon to be 26, and had finally gotten an extended look in the NHL with Dallas after Roman Turek was traded to St. Louis.  Once there, he finally looked to have emerged as an NHL goalie and future starter, although it would have to be elsewhere unless incumbent Ed Belfour was traded (which wasn’t going to happen).  I did more extensive write-ups on Fernandez in my looks at the 1998 and 1999 expansion drafts.
  • Biron was 22, soon to be 23, and had split time with Dominik Hasek in the just-completed 1999-00 season.  Biron had five shutouts in 41 games, but was extremely unlikely to be unprotected and would command an enormous price in the trade market.
  • Giguere was 23, but had slumped badly in the previous two seasons with Saint John of the AHL.  He’d looked good in abbreviated action with Calgary in 1999-00, but wasn’t exactly drawing rave reviews in the AHL.
  • Aebischer was 22 but was buried in the Avalanche depth chart.  He had 96 games with Hershey of the AHL in the previous two seasons and looked to be a future NHL starter.
  • Denis was soon to turn 23, had been a 1st-round pick in 1995, and looked to be the both the safest and most sure pickup out of these seven goalies.  He’d excelled with Hershey in 1997-98 and 1998-99, then had three shutouts in just 23 games with Colorado in the NHL in 1999-00.

There are a couple of other factors that seem foolish in retrospect, but were absolutely taken seriously at the time.

Aebischer, a native of Switzerland, was plagued by “the Swiss factor”: a knock on all Swiss prospects around this time was whether they would rather head back home than develop in the AHL.  In Switzerland, the schedule was shorter, the travel much less, and the pay better than anywhere in a North American minor league.  And although an expansion team would give him a much longer look, instability is the rule for expansion teams in the early years.  Would he become a scapegoat for what was sure to be a subpar team in the first few years, and head back home rather than continue on?  And if he were sent down to develop further in the minors, would he prefer to make ten times his AHL salary playing at home instead?

Nabokov, a native of Kazakhstan, happened to come from a country that didn’t produce NHLers.  And although he played several years in the Russian League, Russian goalies in the 1990s were known for coming in with a ton of hype and then promptly falling flat.  The only one who defied this was Nikolai Khabibulin, and possibly Arturs Irbe (who was Latvian anyway).  But by and large, Russian goalies weren’t doing much.  Andrei Trefilov and Mikhail Shtalenkov came over as pros and couldn’t make it as a starter, while prospects like Evgeni Ryabchikov were doing nothing and then vanishing just as quickly.

Denis, Giguere, Biron, and Fichaud were all French-Canadian at a time that goalies from Quebec were all getting a boost of sorts.  For most of hockey history, goalies were simply the kids who got picked last in pond hockey, or were the younger brothers of players who were forced into goaltending by default.  That all changed in 1985, when a 20-year-old named Patrick Roy established himself as the starter for Montreal, then backstopped them to the 23rd Stanley Cup in franchise history that same year.

Unlike so many others, Roy was athletic, big, and supremely confident.  This was a far cry from most other top NHL goalies at the time, who were mostly small, played a stand-up style, and were regarded as flaky.  Roy would challenge shooters, appearing to give up plenty of net and then slamming the door on what looked like a sure goal.  Roy’s emergence as a local hero caused a seismic shift for kids in Quebec.  Goaltending was no longer the refuge of the guy who couldn’t play hockey otherwise; one could be big and mobile and not have to crouch back in the net and get shelled.

And Montreal was open about the fact that when they scouted and drafted Roy, it was despite his rather mediocre stat line in junior hockey.  The QMJHL was regarded as a league of relentless offense and no real defense, and Roy was referred to as a goalie who hung in there and showed good mental toughness and tenacity, which the Canadiens’ scouts liked.

There were no goalies taken in the 1st round in 1986, which came shortly after the rookie Roy led Montreal to the Cup.  Just one went in 1987, Jimmy Waite from Chicoutimi of the QMJHL (with a 4.88 GAA in his draft year).  Just one was taken in the first round of each 1988 and 1989, neither from Quebec.  Then Martin Brodeur went in 1990, and the floodgates opened as the “sons of Roy” began to reach draft age and as Roy himself continued to play as the league’s best goalie year in and year out.  From the QMJHL, Jocelyn Thibault went in the 1st round in 1993, then Fichaud in 1994, then each of Giguere, Biron, and Denis in 1995.  1997 made history as Roberto Luongo was taken 4th overall (the highest a goalie had been drafted), plus J-F Damphousse later in the first round.  Mathieu Chouinard in 1998, Maxime Ouellet in 1999, and no real end in sight.  Everyone knew that if you were looking for the next Patrick Roy, you had to go to Quebec and scout someone just like him.

Biron was unlikely to be exposed to the expansion draft, which left Denis, Fichaud, and Giguere as the most likely to be available.  Of these:

  • Calgary could protect both Giguere and Fred Brathwaite, which would put two additional young forwards and probably Phil Housley into the expansion draft.  Or they could trade one of the goalies.
  • Fichaud had yet to establish himself, despite several opportunities in five different organizations.
  • Colorado was in deep trouble, having Patrick Roy in net, two young goalies needing protection (Denis and Aebischer), and far too much organizational depth to risk having other players unprotected.  Even if they only protected Roy and thus could protect five defensemen, they’d still have to leave available two of Jon Klemm, Alexei Gusarov, and Greg de Vries.

Fortunately for Colorado, they’d made a deal with Atlanta in November 1999.

Under expansion draft rules, each team had to expose an “experienced” goalie, defined as someone who had played either 10 games in 1999-00 or 25 total games between 1998-99 and 1999-00.  Atlanta bumbled their goaltending situation badly to begin their franchise history, and as a result signed Rick Tabaracci during the 1999-00 season and played him in one game.  Tabaracci had played 23 games in 1998-99, and the 1 game in 1999-00 left him just one game short of being “experienced” for expansion purposes.  Thrashers GM Don Waddell was then able to use this enticement, and traded Tabaracci to Colorado for Shean Donovan.  Colorado now had their experienced goalie that wasn’t Patrick Roy – as long as they played him in just one game, which they did.  For Atlanta, this was a case of salvaging something out of a situation that never should have been there in the first place.

But, more important, if Colorado lost a goalie in the 2000 expansion draft, they could not lose another goalie or a defenseman.  And if they protected just one goalie (allowing them to keep five defensemen and nine forwards), it would mean they wouldn’t lose a quality forward and couldn’t get double-crossed in the expansion draft.

Of course, the problem is that any fully rational GM of an expansion team would take Denis or Aebischer over Tabaracci.  But if Tabaracci was exposed, an enticement could be provided to whoever had the first pick of goalies.  This would keep Denis and Aebischer safe, plus the best exposed Avalanche defensemen.

Of the seven top young goalies I mention above, I don’t believe there’s any question that Marc Denis was the best one at that time.  He was the second-youngest, just a bit older than Aebischer, and three years younger than Nabokov.  He hadn’t gone through extended slumps that made anyone question whether he was actually going to be a top NHL goalie.  He’d had a 1996-97 season for the ages, being named the top goalie in the QMJHL, in the CHL as a whole, he had a jaw-dropping performance in leading Canada to gold in the WJC, and then after taking Chicoutimi into the Memorial Cup tournament he’d played four stellar playoff games in the AHL as Hershey won the Calder Cup.  And he was 19 years old at the time.

From there, it was two full seasons in the AHL with Hershey, then as Roy’s backup in 1999-00.  The kid from Quebec, the one who grew up idolizing Patrick Roy, had the chance to learn from the master.  He got to see how Colorado was run as an organization, and he got to see firsthand how Roy approached the game: how he worked out, how he practiced, how he handled the media, how he kept himself mentally sharp.  He was getting an education off the ice that none of the other young goalies ever could, which simply bolstered his already impeccable resume.

On June 7, 2000, Columbus made a deal with Colorado, acquiring Denis for their 2nd-round pick (#32 overall), and 99% likely part of what they would do in the expansion draft.  Columbus won the coin toss to have the first pick of goalies and forwards, and they took Tabaracci.  This left the unprotected goalie Aebischer, plus defensemen de Vries and Gusarov, in the fold for the Avalanche.  All would play crucial roles in Colorado winning the Stanley Cup the very next year.

Marc Denis, the 22-year-old goaltender the Colorado Avalanche for years had been touting a future star, no longer is Patrick Roy’s heir apparent.

Instead, Denis apparently is destined to be the expansion Columbus Blue Jackets’ first No. 1 goalie, with 22-year-old Swiss farmhand David Aebischer ticketed to be Roy’s backup next season.

The Avs on Wednesday traded Denis to Columbus for a second-round draft choice in the upcoming entry draft, the No. 32 choice overall. The Avs had used the 25th overall pick on Denis in 1995, and he had been rated the No. 1 minor league prospect by The Hockey News two years ago.

So at least on the surface, the Avs didn’t quite get par value for the Montreal native who had a 2.54 goals-against average and three shutouts in 23 appearances with Colorado last season.
….
The NHL consensus has been that the Avs probably could get a mid-to-late first-round pick from an established team for Denis. Yet Denis could have come back to haunt the Avs under that scenario, and it also would have closed one of the many options for the Avs’ further dealings with the two new NHL teams before and after the expansion draft.

Frei, Terry. “Denis trade makes Aebischer backup – Deal part of expansion strategy.” The Denver Post 8 Jun. 2000, Sport: D-01

 

Denis, who will turn 23 Aug. 1 and is considered one of the best goaltending prospects in the NHL, backed up future Hall-of-Famer Patrick Roy in Colorado this past season.

(Avalanche GM Pierre) Lacroix knows he is going to lose one of his young goaltenders in the expansion draft. Lacroix can be proactive on the matter, or at least salvage some face, by getting something in return.

Denis is traded for a second- round pick. The deal goes down Wednesday.

But wait a minute. According to the rumor mill, was not Lacroix being offered first-round picks by other teams who wanted Denis?

Yes. This has been confirmed in other NHL cities.

The Blue Jackets get Denis, who has the potential to be the cornerstone of the franchise. It might just happen that the Jackets get Tabaracci, whose veteran presence, too, will be needed.

Meanwhile, Lacroix is saved from losing either Roy or Aebischer. Furthermore, Lacroix gets to protect more skaters. He doesn’t have to worry about dangling Raymond Bourque or Sandis Ozolinsh.

Arace, Michael. “BLUE JACKETS’ MACLEAN WHEELING AND DEALING – HOCKEY / ANALYSIS.” Columbus Dispatch, The 11 Jun. 2000, Sports: 08E

And:

The Columbus Blue Jackets have landed a No. 1 goaltender even before the expansion draft.

They dealt Wednesday for Marc Denis, who was being groomed as the eventual successor to Patrick Roy for the Colorado Avalanche. The price was the second-round pick, 32nd overall, in June’s entry draft.

“We had Marc Denis rated as the premier young goaltender in the National Hockey League,” said Blue Jackets President Doug MacLean. “We think he will be an outstanding goaltender for Columbus for many years to come.” Denis, 22, Colorado’s top pick in the 1995 draft, played 23 games this season, posting a 9-8-3 record with a 2.54 goals-against average, .917 save percentage and three shutouts. He has been highly touted since going undefeated in leading Canada to a gold medal at the 1997 World Junior Championships.

“He’s more of a standup goalie as opposed to a traditional butterfly goalie,” said Blue Jackets scout Rick Wamsley, a former NHL goaltender. “He’s also a goalie with a pedigree. In the group of young goalies who are out there right now, he’s at the top of the list.”

Brehm, Mike. “Blue Jackets land Denis to tend net.” USA TODAY 8 Jun. 2000, Sports: 17C.

I’ll mention that I usually don’t take Doug MacLean’s comments seriously, or at least not at face value.  I’ll refrain from elaborating on my reasons why.

However, in this particular case, MacLean or the Columbus braintrust having Denis as the best 23-and-under goalie prospect in the world – excepting Roberto Luongo – was not exactly some fringe theory.  A lot of people in the know had him in that spot.

I’ll also point out that the age of a prospect relative to their accomplishments is pretty important, and I believe that we all are at least aware of this.  A player in the OHL scoring 40 goals as a 17-year-old will warrant automatic discussion as a 1st-round prospect; a player scoring 40 goals in the OHL as an undrafted 19-year-old may move himself into the “maybe a late-round gamble” realm, but him being a 1st-round prospect is out of the question.  A college freshman hitting a point a game will get a lot of second looks; a college senior hitting a point a game is barely notable.  I’ll revisit this later.

Anyway, Minnesota GM Doug Risebrough had his own opinion:

The Columbus Blue Jackets, set to enter the league next season along with the Wild, might have secured a No. 1 goalie Wednesday when they traded for Colorado’s Marc Denis, the backup to Patrick Roy.

Wild general manager Doug Risebrough complimented Doug MacLean, the Columbus GM, on the trade, and said he had interest in Denis but not at the price Columbus paid: a second-round pick in the upcoming draft.

“No. 2 picks are going to be our building blocks,” Risebrough said.

Jones, Tom. “NOTES – High price for a Blue Jacket // No. 2 pick is too much for goalie, Wild GM says.” Star Tribune: Newspaper of the Twin Cities 9 Jun. 2000, Sports: 07C

The very next day (June 10), another 2nd-rounder was sent out for a young goalie, as J-S Giguere was traded by Calgary to Anaheim.  The Flames would then protect Fred Brathwaite, and Anaheim would protect Giguere while leaving their other five goalies unprotected (Guy Hebert, Corey Hirsch, Dominic Roussel, Tom Askey, and Blaine Russell).

Brathwaite was 27 years old, soon to be 28, and had put together two solid seasons in the NHL.  1999-00 saw him emerge as the Flames starter, where he played 61 games and had five shutouts on a sub-.500 team.  The team missed the playoffs, but the thought was that the biggest issue was a weak offense combined with a defense that was a weird combination of too old and too young.  (Phil Housley, Tommy Albelin, Steve Smith, and Bobby Dollas were all 35 and older; Robyn Regehr and Derek Morris were both under 21).

There was little doubt that if one of Giguere or Brathwaite was left unprotected, they would be claimed by one of the new teams.  So Calgary traded Giguere, with more upside but more uncertainty, for a 2nd-round pick and then protected Brathwaite.  If they were going to protect one goalie, this was absolutely the correct move to make.

The next big question is whether Calgary should have done this instead of protecting both.  Although protecting the aging Housley and Albelin was mostly pointless, I think that they simply wanted to protect their nine leading scorers among forwards – all of whom were 26 and under with the exception of 29-year-old Bill Lindsay.  Whether it was a good idea to give up Giguere in order to protect Clarke Wilm and Jason Wiemer is another story, but if Giguere never become “Conn Smythe winner J-S Giguere”, this would all be looked at differently.

Anyway, the end result here is that the young goalie market shrank further and thus increased the chances that San Jose would lose Nabokov.  So they had to either trade him for something of value, trade him to one of Columbus or Minnesota in exchange for something, or else convince those teams not to take him.

The next day, June 11, two separate deals were made that promised to keep Nabokov in San Jose.

  • To Minnesota: defenseman Andy Sutton, a 2001 3rd-round pick, and a 2000 7th-round pick in exchange for a 2000 8th-round pick and the Wild passing on Nabokov
  • To Columbus: forward Jan Caloun and a 2000 9th-round pick, plus an unknown conditional pick in 2001 (the conditions of which were not fulfilled) in exchange for the Blue Jackets passing on Nabokov

These are obviously two very, very different deals, and history has not been kind to Columbus or to GM Doug MacLean because of this.  After all, Columbus passed on Nabokov and only took an unsigned European player and a 9th-rounder, while Minnesota was able to get a 25-year-old defenseman, a 3rd-rounder, and a 7th-rounder.

I think there’s a tendency to look at this entirely in retrospect without considering the circumstances.  So is this really as lopsided as it seems?

First, consider that Columbus had just acquired Denis at a bargain three days prior; they did not have a pressing need to take Nabokov.  San Jose most likely knew, or at least was able to guess, that Columbus would have to take Tabaracci when they were on the clock in the expansion draft.  This meant that only Minnesota was a true threat to take Nabokov at all.

Sutton was 25 years old, had played 40 games with the Sharks in 1999-00, and did not suit up in a playoff game while even a 20-year-old Scott Hannan did.  Sutton’s biggest asset at the time was his size (6’6″ and over 230 pounds), but he could possibly slot in on the third pairing of an expansion team and maybe develop into a full-time NHLer.

On the other hand, Caloun was 27 years old, and easily one of the best scoring threats in the world outside the NHL.  He’d put up terrific numbers in a short stint in North America a few years prior, then headed back overseas and dominated the Finnish League to an extent not thought possible.  Nobody averaged two points a game in the playoffs in that league, but Caloun did (1997-98).  Nobody averaged a point and a half per game in a season in that league, then another two points per game in the playoffs, but Caloun did (1998-99).  And nobody put up 38 goals in 44 games, with another point and a half per game season, but Caloun did (1999-00).

The 2000 expansion draft was notable for its complete lack of scoring depth.  Buffalo figured to leave Geoff Sanderson unprotected, but he hadn’t scored in three years and was far from a sure thing.  Outside of that, there were some guys who were well past their prime, some who hadn’t yet approached it and might not, and a middle ground of grinders who might put up 12 goals in a season or 15 if they were really lucky.

So the idea of grabbing a 27-year-old Caloun with his unquestioned scoring prowess, putting him the first line and first power play unit, and getting a lot of production from him, was a pretty sound one.  Sutton?  He hadn’t done much to that point and looked like just another guy who’d struggle to stay in the lineup above the third pairing.

In addition, Minnesota had more leverage than Columbus did: they didn’t have a long-term goalie, while Columbus had just picked up Denis.  Nabokov as a future star was far from assured.

So the trades were made, and the next day (June 12), Minnesota acquired Manny Fernandez and Brad Lukowich in exchange for a 3rd-rounder in 2000 and a 4th-rounder in 2002.  This gave the Wild their probable long-term guy going into the expansion draft.

The Wild made its first significant trade Monday, acquiring what it hopes is a long-term No. 1 goalie.

Manny Fernandez, who served as backup to Ed Belfour in Dallas last season, was traded to the Wild along with defenseman Brad Lukowich for a third-round pick in this month’s entry draft, and a fourth-round pick in the 2002 draft.

The Wild will pick up three more goalies in the expansion draft, but when it opens its season in October, Fernandez probably will be the starter.

“He’s mature, he’s played on a winner, and he has a huge upside,” Wild general manager Doug Risebrough said. “Do I think he’s going to be a No. 1 goalie? Yes, I’m comfortable in saying that.”

Fernandez, 25, saw little playing time behind Belfour in Dallas. During the past three seasons, he appeared in only 33 NHL games. Last season, he had an 11-8-3 record with a 2.13 goals-against average.

In between NHL stints, he posted solid numbers in the minors, winning at least 20 games a season during the past four seasons. In 1998-99, Fernandez led the Houston Aeroes to the International Hockey League championship, going 34-6-9. He opened that season with a 22-game unbeaten streak.

“He’s a winner,” Risebrough said. “And being with Dallas, I like that he’s been around a championship team.

The Stars traded Fernandez because they didn’t want to lose him for no compensation in the expansion draft on June 23. So why would the Wild trade for him when it could have taken him in the expansion draft?

“They were going to trade him somewhere,” Risebrough said. “They were not going to risk exposing him.”

Jones, Tom. “Wild acquires goalie Fernandez from Dallas.” Star Tribune: Newspaper of the Twin Cities 13 Jun. 2000, Sports: 01C

Every box that could be checked by Fernandez was either checked or double-checked by Denis.  And to bring Nabokov into the fold, since he’s the third wheel of these deals:

  • Age – All three would hit birthdays in the summer of 2000: Denis would turn 23, Nabokov 25, Fernandez 26.  Age is extremely important, especially when you consider…
  • Initial Pedigree – Denis was a 1st-round pick, Fernandez a 3rd-rounder, Nabokov a 9th-rounder.  This in itself is more interesting than meaningful, but the fact that these goalies were rated as they were at the time they were drafted is important to imparting the respective career arcs.
  • Best-on-Best – In tournaments against their best peers, Nabokov had no experience.  Fernandez played three largely unimpressive games for Canada in the 1994 World Junior Championships.  Denis was the primary goalie in the 1997 WJC, backstopping Canada to gold and being named as the top goalie in the tournament.
  • 1997-98 season – Nabokov played with the Kentucky Thoroughblades in the AHL and was wildly inconsistent, posting a 3.92 GAA and .872 save percentage.  Denis was better, and it’s worth mentioning that it was his first pro season.  Fernandez was beaten out for the backup job in Dallas by Arturs Irbe, whose career had derailed after a career-threatening nerve injury in his hand; Fernandez had a fine season with Michigan of the IHL.
  • 1998-99 season – All three goalies turned in terrific years: Nabokov won November’s AHL Goalie of the Month award, Denis played in the All-Star Game, and Fernandez won the Turner Cup in the IHL.
  • 1999-00 season – Nabokov played 11 games with the Sharks and looked good, while Fernandez and Denis both were their teams’ primary backups and looked terrific.  Nabokov and Fernandez got a bit of mop-up duty in the playoffs in a single game, while Denis didn’t get into a playoff game.

The biggest issue with Fernandez was that he had been given every opportunity since 1995 to be the primary backup in Dallas, and every time he was beaten out by someone much more lightly-regarded: in 1995-96 it was Allan Bester who stuck as the Stars’ third goalie (back when that was still a thing), in 1996-97 it was Irbe, in 1997-98 it was an unknown 27-year-old named Roman Turek.  Then in 1998-99, he was sent to Houston on loan, while the primary job with Dallas’ actual farm team went to a graduating college kid named Marty Turco.  In 1999-00 he was elevated to NHL backup, mostly because Turek was traded to St. Louis.

This isn’t meant as a slam on Fernandez, who proved himself pretty quickly when he was given full-time action in the NHL with Minnesota.  It’s simply pointing out that, while Nabokov forced his way into the Sharks’ long-term plans and Denis put himself on the verge of everything he was supposed to be at the time he was traded, Fernandez had simply not broken through.  He was older than Denis and Nabokov, and was arguably less of a sure thing than either.

Anyway, the rest of the story is this.  The short version:

  • Marc Denis would split time with Ron Tugnutt in Columbus for two years.  Tugnutt was traded to Dallas, and Denis became the full-time starter.  Lacking an actual backup, he would play nearly the entire 2002-03 season (77/82 games; 4,511 minutes of a possible 4,920; and a staggering 2,172 saves on a more staggering 2,402 shots faced).  He played another 66 games in 2003-04, then split time with young Pascal Leclaire in 2005-06.  After that, he was traded to Tampa Bay for Fredrik Modin and Fredrik Norrena.
  • Jan Caloun played 11 games with Columbus in 2000-01, putting up 0 goals and 3 assists with a -8 rating, before heading back to Europe mid-season.  This was the last NHL action of his career.
  • Manny Fernandez split time with Jamie McLennan in 2000-01, then with Dwayne Roloson over the ensuing several seasons.
  • Andy Sutton played 69 games in 2000-01 with Minnesota, and would play in the NHL through the end of the 2011-12 season.
  • Evgeni Nabokov unexpectedly emerged as the Sharks’ starter in 2000-01 and was the primary reason that they had the third-best goals against in the NHL.  He won the Calder Trophy that year and finished 4th in voting for the Vezina.  And he was just getting started…his emergence allowed the Sharks to trade the more highly-touted Miikka Kiprusoff to Calgary.  By the time he retired 15 years later, Nabokov had put up a 353-257-86 career record with 59 shutouts.

The problem with assessing this cluster of deals right now is that it’s all in hindsight.  Nabokov wasn’t expected to do much, Fernandez was still a bit of an unknown (except that he’d only become the NHL backup in Dallas after everyone else who’d outplayed him was traded), and Denis was widely regarded as one of the two best young goalies in the world – the other being Roberto Luongo.

No, it didn’t turn out that way.  In 2000-01, Nabokov suited up for what had been a playoff team the previous season and would be again while the other two went to expansion teams.  Fernandez got to play for a suffocating defensive team coached by Jacques Lemaire, while Denis…well, maybe this tells the story.  Denis faced 940 shots in 1,830 minutes, projecting out to 30.8 shots per 60 minutes.  Fernandez faced 1,147 shots in 2,460 minutes, projecting to 27.9 shots per 60 minutes.  And Denis faced a ton of high-quality shots, which is bound to happen when Deron Quint and Mattias Timander are on your first pairing – compare that to Minnesota, which had Willie Mitchell on the second pairing when he was in the lineup.

This number never really improved for Denis.

  • 2001-02: 1,197 shots against in 2,335 minutes (30.8 SA/60)
  • 2002-03: 2,404 shots against in 4,511 minutes (32.0 SA/60)
  • 2003-04: 1,970 shots against in 3,796 minutes (31.1 SA/60)
  • 2005-06: 1,505 shots against in 2,786 minutes (32.4 SA/60)

By comparison, Fernandez faced:

  • 2001-02: 1,157 shots against in 2,463 minutes (28.2 SA/60)
  • 2002-03: 972 shots against in 1,979 minutes (29.5 SA/60)
  • 2003-04: 1,056 shots against in 2,156 minutes (29.4 SA/60)
  • 2005-06: 1,612 shots against in 3,411 minutes (28.4 SA/60)
  • 2006-07: 1,158 shots against in 2,422 minutes (28.7 SA/60)

And for good measure, Nabokov during the four years that all goalies overlapped with their respective teams:

  • 2001-02: 1,818 shots against in 3,901 minutes (28.0 SA/60)
  • 2002-03: 1,561 shots against in 3,227 minutes (29.0 SA/60)
  • 2003-04: 1,610 shots against in 3,456 minutes (28.0 SA/60)
  • 2005-06: 1,160 shots against in 2,575 minutes (27.0 SA/60)

Denis’ lightest per-game workload was higher than the most that either of the other two faced in any given season.  And again, these weren’t low-quality shots from the outside; Columbus had a porous defense for the duration of Denis’ tenure there, and it didn’t start to see an actual improvement until after Ken Hitchcock became coach in 2006-07 (a tenure which began after Denis was traded to Tampa Bay).

Over the years, Doug MacLean has faced an enormous amount of criticism for the job that he did as GM in Columbus, and the Denis/Nabokov/Tabaracci deal is normally cited on a short list of why exactly things went so wrong for so long.  I’ve certainly been extremely critical of MacLean.

However, in this situation, I believe that he was absolutely 100% right.  Yes, Columbus was known for years as a great place to come in and break out of an offensive slump.  Yes, Denis was the primary goalie for several of those years.  But I believe that the criticism of Denis is largely unfair, and that no one would have been able to consistently face the number of high quality shots a night that he did and win more games than he lost; that goes double when you consider how poor the offensive output of the Jackets was during this time as well.

And when I say “no one”, I mean “NO ONE”.  Let’s say that Columbus passed on Denis and ended up taking Nabokov (setting aside, for a brief moment, the reality that one of Nabokov or Steve Shields would have been traded by San Jose before letting either be picked in the expansion draft).  Would Nabokov have won the Calder in 2000-01?  No.  Would he have become a high-quality starter?  Highly debatable.  Would he have lasted ten years in the NHL, let alone the fifteen that he actually did?  Not on your life.

Consider this.  According to a simple sort at hockey-reference.com, since 1990-91 there have been 16 goalies who meet the following criteria: age 25 or older playing their first full NHL season with half their team’s games played (40 games for 1991-92 and earlier, 42 games for 1992-93 and 1993-94, 41 games since).  They are Ed Belfour, Johan Hedberg, Nabokov, Roman Cechmanek, Niklas Backstrom, Mike Condon, Fredrik Norrena, Fredrik Andersen, Pasi Nurminen, Jeff Deslauriers, Jonas Hiller, Antero Niittymaki, Dan Ellis, Johan Gustavsson, Cristobal Huet, and Eddie Lack.  What’s interesting is the giant gap of ten years between Belfour and the next one who hit this category, which was Nabokov and Cechmanek.  Except for Belfour, there’s not a HOF-caliber guy in there.  The best are those who had a couple of nice seasons and were quickly replaced, while the rest mostly flamed out.  Belfour and Nabokov are the only two who cracked the 500 games played threshold at all, and only Backstrom and Hiller even hit 400.  Put Nabokov onto a first-year Blue Jackets team and then wonder if his career would be more like Ed Belfour or more like one of the other guys.

Denis did have a terrific 2003-04 season with Columbus, which in my opinion (then as now) warranted serious consideration for the Vezina.  It was an odd year, in which the goalies I believe to be the three best that year – Luongo, Denis, and Dwayne Roloson – all played for teams that missed the playoffs.  (Miikka Kiprusoff was terrific as well, but played less than half the season for Calgary).

NOTE: When listing the following records, they’re compiled by W-L-(ties plus OT losses)  rather than the W-L-T-OTL that was used at the time.

Consider that in 2000-01, Denis was 0-18-2 when he allowed three goals or more.  Not one time was he bailed out.  On the flip side, he was 2-1-1 when allowing just one goal; five points earned out of eight.

Denis, year by year:

  • 2000-01: 0-18-2 when allowing three or more goals, 2-1-1 when allowing one
  • 2001-02: 1-18-3 when allowing three or more goals, 3-1-1 when allowing one
  • 2002-03: 4-35-7 when allowing three or more goals, 9-2-1 when allowing one
  • 2003-04: 4-24-4 when allowing three or more goals, 5-6-1 when allowing one

You read that right.  In 2003-04, that’s a sub-.500 record in games in which he allowed a single goal.  His overall stat line in those games was 334/346 saves (.965 save percentage) and a 1.03 GAA….and a 5-6-1 record.  In games where he allowed exactly two goals, he was 7-4-5, with 9 of those 16 games going into overtime.

Now consider Nabokov’s records in those years:

  • 2000-01: 4-10-2 when allowing three or more goals, 12-2-1 when allowing one
  • 2001-02: 9-14-4 when allowing three or more goals, 9-2-1 when allowing one
  • 2002-03: 2-23-6 when allowing three or more goals, 6-0-0 when allowing one
  • 2003-04: 5-10-9 when allowing three or more goals, 7-0-0 when allowing one

And then Fernandez:

 

  • 2000-01: 3-8-4 when allowing three or more goals, 5-1-2 when allowing one
  • 2001-02: 2-18-6 when allowing three or more goals, 7-0-0 when allowing one
  • 2002-03: 5-8-0 when allowing three or more goals, 6-0-0 when allowing one
  • 2003-04: 2-8-6 when allowing three or more goals, 2-0-2 when allowing one

And the combined records from these four seasons:

  • Denis: 9-95-16 when allowing 3+ (.142 point %), 19-10-4 when allowing one (.636)
  • Nabokov: 20-57-21 when allowing 3+ (.311), 34-4-2 when allowing one (.875)
  • Fernandez: 12-42-16 when allowing 3+ (.286), 20-1-4 when allowing one (.880)

Put into point terms, projected over a whole 82-game season:

  • Denis: 23 points (6-65-11) when allowing 3+, 104 (47-25-10) when allowing one
  • Nabokov: 51 points (17-48-17) when allowing 3+, 144 (70-8-4) when allowing one
  • Fernandez: 47 points (14-49-19) when allowing 3+, 145 (66-3-13) when allowing one

The issue is becoming fairly obvious.  The struggles of Columbus in the early years cannot be simply laid at the feet of Marc Denis; it was a total team effort.

So let’s back up.  Would Evgeni Nabokov have become a Calder Trophy winner, an All-Star, and a 15-year veteran had he gone to Columbus instead of Denis?  I think the answer is pretty obvious.

I’ll argue that, rather than being criticized for a move that didn’t ultimately pan out the way it was hoped, Doug MacLean should be praised for his aggressiveness at being able to get a player who was universally regarded as one of the best young goalies in the world and paying a small price to do so.  He can certainly be criticized for the reasons that it didn’t work out, but to trash him for this move is simply revisionism.

 

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