Buoyed by the optimism of youth, Taylor Hall believes that the Oilers can make the playoffs this season. I think the odds of this happening are similar to pulling an ace when hitting on 20 but no matter how unlikely, the fact remains that it is possible. So with that in mind I've tried to identify a few of the key improvements/changes that will need to happen for the Oilers to compete for a playoff spot starting this season.
Up first on that list of improvements was putting up a better record against the Northwest Division. Today I've turned my attention to changes between the pipes, specifically more Devan Dubnyk and less Nikolai Khabibulin.
Regardless of the metric you want to use to evaluate Kahbibulin’s play in 2010/11 the results are terrible. He won just 12 games and posted an .886 save percentage, good for 64th out of 67 goalies with at least 10 games played last season. When the Oilers were shorthanded Khabibulin’s performance wasn’t any better, and in fact, somehow, it was actually worse. In his look back at Khabibulin’s season Bruce McCurdy noted that Khabibulin was "statistically more likely to allow five or more goals than two or less". And to pile on, Khabibulin is now 38 and the odds are getting pretty long that he can bounce back to his Stanley Cup winning form.
Despite the mountains of evidence that Khabibulin isn’t a top calibre goaltender Tom Renney still considers him to be the Oilers number one goalie. In an interview with Dan Tencer (thanks to David Staples for the write-up), Renney said that he feels that Dubnyk is a good young goalie and that he will take over from Khabibulin someday. When I read that, I don’t get the impression that someday and October 9, 2011 are the same day. The farther someday is from the start of the season, the harder it will be for the Oilers to make the playoffs.
Dubnyk isn’t by any means a sure thing himself. He's played only 54 games in the NHL so it’s not a stretch to say that he’s more unknown than known at this point in his career. Last season Dubnyk started three consecutive games only three times - in each case Khabibulin was injured - so his ability to handle a larger workload is still unclear. Scott took a look at comparable netminders and the results don’t lead me to believe that Dubnyk is, at this point at least, a Vezina Trophy winner in the waiting but it also doesn’t make me believe that he still isn’t a significantly better option than Khabibulin in the Oilers net.
For me, the preferred option in net this season would have been to buyout Khabibulin or send him to the minors, (sorry Barons fans) replacing him with a capable NHL goalie that could split time with Dubnyk. This would have resulted in the most possible improvement in the Oilers net but that ship has sailed and Steve Tambellini has instead decided to throw good money after bad and keep Khabibulin around.
To get an idea of the impact that a different distribution of the starts will provide I’ve included a breakdown of the actual numbers from last season (excluding the three games played by Martin Gerber) and then calculated what might have been with the same save percentages and even game distribution and a 60/40 split in the starts.
Even with a dramatic shift in the distribution of the starts, the Oilers wouldn’t have been much better off last year. The difference between the actual and the 60/40 split is just 11 goals, or approximately two wins. Those two extra wins wouldn’t have even been enough for the Oilers to catch the 29th place Avalanche let alone get within shouting distance of the playoffs.
Looking forward to this season though, if Dubnyk can improve on his numbers from last season even slightly and can prove capable of handling the role of the number one goalie, while Khabibulin improves to just terrible from atrocious then perhaps the Oilers could squeeze another three or four wins out of their netminders. Three or four wins in an 82 game season might not seem like a lot but in the long journey from last place to the playoffs the Oilers are going to need every win and point that they can get.