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Nikolai Khabibulin - Somehow Still The Number 1

Khabibulin making a save, I'm as surprised as you are
Khabibulin making a save, I'm as surprised as you are

On the first day of free agency in July 2009, Steve Tambellini acquired his first big name free agent when he inked often injured and aging goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin to a four year contract with annual cap hit of $3.75M. Khabibulin was brought in to replace Dwayne Roloson who had signed a two year deal with the New York Islanders just hours earlier. Roloson had served the Oilers well in his three plus years with the Oilers - see trip to Stanley Cup Final for evidence - but with his 40th birthday looming large on the horizon, the Oilers decided that a change in net was required.

That Khabibulin had only played more than 50 games one time in the four seasons since winning the Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004 apparently did not concern the Oilers. At the time of the signing Steve Tambellini said, "Nikolai is a world-class goaltender who has proven himself throughout his career as one of the best in the game. He has had success at many levels of hockey and we’re looking forward to seeing him continue that success here in Edmonton."

Two years later, fans in Edmonton are still waiting to see this supposed world-class goaltender. To put it simply, Khabibulin hasn't been very good in his first two years in Edmonton but some fans see a silver lining in his play as it has allowed the Oilers to acquire the entry draft's first pick for two years running. For the record, that's quite possibly the best example of putting lipstick on a pig that I've ever come across.

The first year of the deal saw Khabibulin miss the Oilers final 61 games with a back injury. While injured he was arrested for drunk driving, a charge which he was found guilty of in August (he's currently appealing the conviction). It wasn't, to say the least, a great first impression. That some of the folks within the management group of the Oilers felt Khabibulin's first season with the Oilers was worthy of the team MVP is mind boggling.

In his second season with the Oilers Khabibulin played more games and had fewer drunk driving arrests. So on some level the season could be considered a success. However, another more accurate description would be to call the season a failure. Strong yes, but what else can you call a 10-32-4 record that came with a 3.40 goals against average and a .890 save percentage?

When compared to all the goalies that played at least 10 games last season Khabibulin's save percentage ranks him 64th out of 67, bettering only Rick DiPietro, Ty Conklin, and Justin Peters. That's the neighborhood you want to see your MVP in for sure. With the Oilers killing a penalty Khabibulin manged to somehow perform even worse. By comparison, the man assigned the job of backup, Devan Dubnyk, finished the season with a 12-13-8 record and a .916 save percentage. If you're struggling to understand why Khabibulin is the starter for the Oilers you're not alone.

There are few fans that are happy with Khabibulin's play and many would happily welcome a trade (never going to happen) or buyout (possible this year, more so next summer) to rid ourselves of his contract. Looking at the scoring chances from Derek's post yesterday the fans may not be the only one who don't like Khabibulin. For some reason the Oilers generate a lot fewer chances when Khabibulin is between the pipes when compared to anyone else which of course isn't going to do him much help in the win column. This isn't even a pattern that just emerged this season, it's occurred over both seasons that Khabibulin has called Edmonton home. Perhaps the players would like to see him move along as well.

At the Cult of Hockey today Bruce McCurdy broke down the records of the Oilers netminders based on goals for and against. It's pretty clear that the Oilers gave Dubnyk, and Martin Gerber in his very limited time here, more support in terms of goals for than they did Khabibulin. In return those goalies allowed a lot fewer goals. Quite possibly the most alarming thing Bruce identified about Khabibulin was that he was In statistically more likely to allow five or more goals than he was two or less. Yikes. 

Khabibulin is overpaid and he simply isn't very good anymore. Like the rest of us he's also getting older so I can't imagine that his play is going to significantly improve over the final two years of his contract. Moving on would be the best option for the Oilers at this point but I highly doubt that management sees it the same way. I do expect his save percentage to at least bounce back a little but he still isn't going to be a superior option to Dubnyk next season or the year after. Dubnyk may or may not prove that he can be a number one goalie in the NHL but Khabibulin has already proven that he no longer is so it's time to see what Dubnyk can do.

Prediction: Khabibulin will be the opening night goalie for the Oilers. If he stays healthy (which is a huge if) he'll start 45 to 50 games next season with a save percentage closer to .910 than .890.