Q: How do you win 10 out of 12 games despite a mediocre .891 save percentage?
A: Play for the San Jose Sharks.
Evgeni Nabokov is probably the most overrated goalie in the league. He didn't deserve his Vezina runner-up finish last season, and he doesn't deserve his status as one of the league's elite goalies (for example, Rotowire.com calls him "arguably the best goalie in the NHL"). This has become even more clear over the last couple of weeks, as Nabokov has missed several games with a knee injury and the Sharks haven't missed a beat with backup goalie Brian Boucher between the pipes.
Boucher has posted outstanding results since San Jose acquired him last season. He has gone 10-2-2 with a 1.85 GAA, .929 save percentage, and 3 shutouts. Unless Boucher has morphed into an elite goalie on the wrong side of 30, he has either been on a very lucky streak or he is playing on a strong team defence. It is probably true that Boucher has been at least somewhat lucky, and he may have been playing mostly weak opposition, but it would still be very unlikely for him to post similar results over 14 decisions on nearly every other team in the league.
Even without Boucher's success, there is still lots of evidence to argue that Nabokov is overrated. Nabokov's shot-quality adjusted save percentage numbers are very ordinary. Only one of his post-lockout seasons has been above league average (2006-07), and even that one was by a small margin.
Another problem with Nabokov is that he is erratic. His month-by-month save percentages are all over the place (e.g. last year his month-by-month line went .916, .929, .915, .890, .867, .941, .909). He almost seems to alternate between good and bad years throughout his career, and some of his seasons have been quite poor (2002-03 and 2005-06).
Nabokov makes some flashy saves and when he is on his game he can be pretty good. I can understand that there are people who caught the right sample of Sharks games could think Nabokov is a terrific goalie. However, every game counts, and over the long haul Nabokov's results are not elite.
What is interesting to me is that San Jose fans, who are not likely to be biased from a small viewing sample, seem to have a very different perspective of Nabokov than the numbers do. The opinions I have read may not be representative of all San Jose fans, but most of them that post or comment online appear to have the perception that their defence is weak and giveaway-prone, and that Nabokov has to make a lot of difficult stops. That conflicts with the shot quality numbers (San Jose has been consistently 5-7% better than average in shot quality against over the last 3 years), it conflicts with the giveaway numbers (looking at road giveaways only to remove scorer bias, San Jose ranked 3rd in the league in fewest giveaways in 2007-08), it conflicts with the results of Boucher and other Sharks goalies, and it conflicts with the shot prevention numbers (San Jose ranked 2nd in fewest shots allowed last year, and currently rank 2nd again this year). In this type of situation I think an objective analyst should at least be open to the possibility that the numbers aren't telling the whole story, but Nabokov is hardly the first high win total/low save percentage goalie to get lots of love from his local fanbase so for now I'll trust the evidence more than the hometown fans.
Nabokov is currently sidelined with an injury but is expected to return soon. If he gets nearly all of the starts the rest of the way and the Sharks continue to dominate, Nabokov could once again lead the league in wins. That may be difficult, since Boucher's success will likely result in San Jose throwing a few more starts his way, but it would be interesting to see a goalie win 45+ games with a sub-.900 save percentage, if nothing else as an interesting test case for Vezina voters.
In somewhat related news, Toronto fans seem to be souring on Vesa Toskala. This is not that surprising, since Toskala hasn't been anything special at all since the lockout, either in San Jose or Toronto. Here is a comparison of Toskala and Nabokov in San Jose:
Toskala, SJS: 65-28-10 (.680), 2.34, .914
Nabokov, SJS: 218-152-48 (.579), 2.38, .910
Now, here is Toskala so far in Toronto:
Toskala, TOR: 40-31-10 (.556), 2.86, .898
Makes one wonder how well Nabokov would do on a weaker team. I'm not sure he would do a whole let better than Toskala has. San Jose gets a lot of credit for their work in developing goalies, but I think much of it may simply be a result of the strong team and goalie-friendly climate in which they play.