Goalie Schaefer returns from Russia, with glove
The numbers, even by his own admission, are pedestrian: 22 appearances for CSKA Moscow last year, 6 wins and 10 losses, a 2.66 goals-against average, .895 save percentage.
For all that, Nolan Schaefer, dismissed by the NHL after 2008-09, is under contract in North America with the Bruins, with the possibility of finding himself back in big-league dressing rooms this season.
“The weird thing,’’ said the four-year Providence College puckstopper with a twinge of confusion, “is that I was having great years in Houston and San Jose prior to that. It took one bad year in Russia for me — statistically, it was the worst performance-wise — to get a lot of interest.
“I don’t know why. I guess that’s how it works out.’’
This offseason, when Evgeni Nabokov couldn’t find NHL work and Antti Niemi was jettisoned by the Blackhawks, there is little about the goaltending market that is playing out in traditional form. For Schaefer, the oddity began one year ago, when his contract with Minnesota expired. When the market opened on July 1, 2009, the unrestricted free agent waited for offers. Some came. Schaefer waited for better ones.
In retrospect, that might have been an error.
“I had some good offers in North America to play,’’ said Schaefer, who was signed by the Bruins to a one-year, two-way contract ($500,000 NHL/$75,000 AHL) on July 5. “We sort of sat on them. Bit of a mistake on our part. Some of the windows started to close with the goalie market. Then I had some opportunities in Russia and Germany.’’
Schaefer was coming off two respectable seasons in Houston, Minnesota’s AHL affiliate. With Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding filling the two Wild spots, Schaefer was one of the club’s go-to AHL goalies. In 2007-08, Schaefer went 19-13-0 with a 2.06 GAA and a .924 save percentage. Then in 2008-09, he posted a 26-17-5 record with a 2.52 GAA and .903 save percentage.
For all that, Schaefer’s reward was a one-year stint in the Kontinental Hockey League under the watch of former NHLer Sergei Nemchinov. Schaefer was one of three ex-NHLers on the CSKA roster, joining Somerville native and former University of Maine star Niko Dimitrakos and big-league veteran Mark Hartigan.
As per the small-world nature of hockey, Schaefer had ties with both players.
He was teammates with Dimitrakos in San Jose, while Hartigan once played for the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s Weyburn Red Wings, based 10 minutes away from Schaefer’s hometown of Yellow Grass.
The 30-year-old Schaefer, who made seven appearances for San Jose in 2005-06, had to adjust to the KHL’s nuances. Smaller players. Wider rinks. More time to wait for patient shooters to release the puck.
“I found that they like to hold onto the puck a little longer,’’ said Schaefer. “It’s really hard to compare the two leagues. Obviously, in my opinion, the NHL’s still the best league. But I went there and played.
“It’s a good league. I had a tough time adjusting. But I can’t say enough about the experience. I was a completely different goalie, playing the angles and using my size. I had to relax that theory and use my reflexes and a little bit more strategy instead of my positioning that I was used to doing here.
“I have to combine them now. You can’t play one way, then come here, because you’ll get burned on other things. I’m working on it.’’
Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas are locked into the two goaltending spots in Boston for 2010-11. But if either falls to injury, Schaefer, who projects to be the No. 1 goalie in Providence, would be promoted (he will be in Prague for the season openers against Phoenix, when the league will allow both clubs to carry three goalies). As he noted, he will require some tuneup work in training camp to reacclimate himself to the North American game.
“He does have good foot speed. He does move real well,’’ said Bruins goaltending coach Bob Essensa. “He’s a little unorthodox, but that isn’t always a bad thing.
“When I scout goalies and I see goalies that are a little unorthodox, sometimes it’s an advantage. When you get the shooters guessing, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“There are some things we need to address — not necessarily more orthodox — but get him some more tools for his toolbox.’’
There used to be a time when Wayne Gretzky made his living behind the net, holding onto the puck and looking to set up teammates for in-front chances. But one of the most significant shifts across the league has been the embrace of collapsing zone defenses.
In Gretzky’s prime, coaches were still instructing their forwards to stretch out and take away the points. Now, the emphasis is on eliminating the slot as a danger area.
Defensemen are stationed in front of the net. Forwards are scurrying away from the points and collapsing. As a result, there is less breathing room in front, and playmakers haven’t been as free to create from behind the net.
Perhaps with a few more inches of open ice, a playmaker like Nicklas Backstrom could dangle around defensemen, force others to commit one way, then look for Alex Ovechkin the other way.
“Everything is so collapsed,’’ said Bruins assistant general manager Don Sweeney. “Before, penalty-killers didn’t collapse quite as much. They’d stay more in a box formation. Now, everything is home-based. Everything collapses.’’
On the defensive side, shrinking the net gives puck-carrying defensemen a wider avenue for escaping pesky forecheckers. Consequently, breakouts could be quicker and crisper. A D-man who runs into forechecking trouble could reverse the puck behind the net and give it to his partner.
“I like it,’’ said Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. “If you’re a defenseman trying to skate past a forechecking forward, you try and make that cut behind the net, then up the ice. But that’s a real skilled move for a defenseman. You’re making that move, retrieving the puck, and moving up the ice.
“Now, this way, there’s less net when you’re trying to make that corner. That’s a positive thing. It’s a corollary of the experiment. I think the original intent was to open up more space behind the net to set up and make a play. This is a side benefit.’’
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.