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Better Late than Never: What is Evgeni Nabokov worth in Russia?

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Faced with an NHL goaltending market that no longer demanded his services at a price he wanted, Evgeni Nabokov signed with St. Petersburg of the Russian Kontinental Hockey League.  His contract - $24 million over four years – seemed shockingly large given the recent collapse in goaltender salaries as NHL general managers began to successfully mine freely-available goaltending talent.  But is it possible that Nabokov is worth the money he’s being paid in the KHL?

Let’s look at Nabokov’s performance over the last three seasons in the NHL, along with league-wide statistics for both leagues:

 

Save %

Nabokov

Average

Replacement

NHL

914

907

894

KHL

???

905

893

 

Nabokov has faced an average of 1878 shots in those three seasons, so his performance has been worth approximately 37.5 goals above replacement, or 6.25 wins per season.  In the 2009-10 offseason, goaltender wins have been going very cheaply: approximately $780k per win from unrestricted free agents.  That values Nabokov’s performance at approximately $5.4 million per season.  However, Nabokov is 34, so we should expect declines in both his performance and his health, and NHL restrictions on writing off contracts for players over 35 further limit his value in long-term contract negotiations.  It wouldn’t be surprising if Nabokov was unable to find even a two-year $8 million offer in the NHL.

 

How does a KHL team make Nabokov an offer that’s so much more generous than any in the NHL?  First, while KHL teams operate under a salary cap, they can also sign one "franchise player", whose contract does not count against the cap.  Many NHL teams, on the other hand, have simply run up against the salary cap and can’t afford to sign an expensive free agent goaltender. 

 

So how do we figure out what Nabokov might be worth in the KHL?  First, let’s look at how other NHL goaltenders have done in the KHL:

 

Goaltender

KHL SV%

NHL SV% 2005-09

Adam Munro

883

858

Andy Chiodo

868

892

Evgeny Konstantinov

902

833

Fredrik Norrena

931

900

Jan Lasak

908

874

Jussi Markkanen

908

901

Karri Ramo

913

895

Martin Gerber

914

909

Martin Prusek

914

909

Michael Garnett

889

885

Mika Noronen

890

901

Mikael Tellqvist

905

898

Nolan Schaefer

895

920

Rastislav Stana

901

890

Robert Esche

912

900

Tyler Moss

904

857

Vitaly Kolesnik

945

888

Wade Dubielewicz

892

914

 

 

 

Overall

907

892

 

So in the NHL, this group of goaltenders was slightly below replacement level, and in the KHL, they’re slightly above-average.  Let’s also look at skaters who played in both leagues and see how their shooting percentage changed:

 

 

Sh%

Avg

Norm

NHL

9.20

9.28

 

KHL

10.44

9.47

10.23

 

We have a total of 40 players who’ve played significant time in the NHL and KHL in consecutive seasons.  Their shooting percentage was 11% higher in the KHL than it was in the NHL, compared to the goaltender save percentage, which was 19% higher.  Splitting the difference, this suggests that it’s roughly 15% easier to stop a puck in the KHL than it is in the NHL.  We can conjecture that Nabokov’s true talent level is a 923 save percentage at the moment:

 

Save %

Nabokov

Average

Replacement

NHL

914

907

894

KHL

923

905

893

 

The replacement level save percentage for the KHL was determined by looking at the 20 goaltenders who played in the league in 2008-09 but did not make the cut for the following season.  Regular starting goaltenders in the KHL faced somewhere between 1000 and 1400 shots per season, which means Nabokov’s talent is worth approximately 36 goals above replacement. 

 

 

In the KHL’s two seasons, one incremental goal has been worth approximately 0.49 points in the standings.  That puts Nabokov’s value at 18 points per season.  Team-level replacement is somewhat difficult to define for the KHL since the level of play at the bottom-end has varied significantly over the last two seasons, but a reasonable estimate is to assume that it’s at the same level relative to average as in the NHL (50 points). 

 

This puts KHL replacement at 46 points.  Assuming that overall salary expenditures per season were $320 million as in 2008-09, the cost of a point is $352k, which puts Nabokov’s value at $6.3M.  Nabokov may very well play more than any other goaltender in the KHL, which could push his value as high as $8M.  Clearly he’ll suffer the same dropoff in performance and health that he would have in the NHL, but he’s much more likely to provide value for a four-year, $24M contract in the KHL than he would have in North America.