With four strong performances in five December outings, and no true stinkers so far this month, the ‘Nikolai Khabibulin as MVP’ brigade is back out on the Oilers official website. An article from Oilers digital media assistant Ryan Dittrick currently graces the club’s front page, casually ascribing all of Khabibulin’s early season struggles to the penalty kill, and pointing to his recent (and quite impressive) performance as something that “has helped to shine light on the stellar play of the team’s number one goaltender; praise that’s not only deserving, but well overdue.”
Dittrick does point out that Khabibulin’s numbers early on were not so rosy, but according to him that’s easily dismissed:
Prior to his late-November groin strain that sidelined the goaltender for a brief period, Khabibulin had a below .900 save percentage in nine of his 15 games; a troubling statistic, no doubt. However, a closer inspection helps to reveal why. Of course, it has always been a common saying that your goaltender needs to be your best penalty killer. While this is certainly true, Khabibulin wasn’t receiving much help. In those aforementioned 15 games, the Oilers gave up an incredible 20 powerplay markers. Inconsistency in execution, over-pursuit of the puck at the points, and other factors noted by Head Coach Tom Renney firmly planted the team’s position in the cellar of the league’s penalty killing statistics.
The really remarkable thing about those paragraphs is how Dittrick can take a penalty kill on pace to be one of the worst in the history of the game and place the blame entirely on some inconsistency and over-aggression from unnamed skaters. Delightful, but I digress.
In any case, even if we assume that Khabibulin is totally blameless in the woeful penalty kill – a difficult assumption to make, and one we’ll deal with further in a moment – I still find it impossible to look at his numbers and come to the conclusion that the Russian goaltender is “getting the job done in a big way.” Let’s briefly compare Khabibulin’s even-strength save percentage numbers with his fellow Oilers goaltenders, and with the league’s other 29 starters:
There’s nothing wrong with a 0.918 even-strength save percentage; it puts Khabibulin in the middle range of NHL goaltenders this season. He’s well back of players with legitimate MVP claims to date – people like Tim Thomas and Ondrej Pavelec, but it also keeps him clear of the really ugly performances put in so far this season. It also puts him well behind the combined performance of backups Devan Dubnyk and Martin Gerber.
Wait A Second…
But that isn’t all. Let’s go back to the penalty kill for a second. Dittrick dismissed Khabibulin’s PK struggles out of hand, and that simply isn’t right. But instead of looking at penalty-killing save percentage, let’s look at scoring chances stopped, and see if that comparison flatters or hinders Khabibulin (this idea borrowed from the Copper & Blue’s Derek Zona):
Scoring chance save percentage tells us much the same thing that regular save percentage does: that Khabibulin’s performance lagged far behind that of Devan Dubnyk (and for the record, Dubnyk’s penalty-killing save percentage is in the average to slightly below average range). He wasn’t facing more chances than Dubnyk (on a per-game basis, Dubnyk faced both more shots and more chances), they just ended in goals a little more often. And as nice as it would be to wave that away, as Dittrick has done, I don’t think it’s a responsible thing to do.
Nikolai Khabibulin had a brutal run on the PK. The run was so bad that it probably isn’t sustainable, but it happened and it is wrong to just pretend it didn’t.
What This Isn’t
I’m not trying to beat up on Khabibulin here. His play since coming back from injury has been superb, and he deserves credit for that. If he can keep it up, then all sorts of superlatives can be accurately used to describe his play. It goes without saying that a high-end performance from Khabibulin for the remainder of his contract would do wonders to improve this hockey club, and that every fan of the team wants to see that.
But there’s an eagerness on the part of the pseudo-media – the rights holder, the team-employed commentators on the radio, internet (and occasionally television) – to make Khabibulin into something he isn’t. He’s been a slightly below average starter when healthy, he’s been frequently unhealthy, and his flashes of brilliance have only been flashes to date. His recent progress is encouraging, but it’s only five games – six percent of an NHL season – and it’s far better to see how things turn out before making grandiose pronouncements. This is part of a larger issue, of course; as the Oilers organization takes on an increasingly prominent role in covering themselves, fluff pieces will continue to be both more prevalent and more accepted as part of the mainstream discourse.