Nikolai Khabibulin, MVP

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:

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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:

Rank Player GP EV SV%
1 Tim Thomas 20 0.958
2 Ondrej Pavelec 21 0.948
3 Jonathan Quick 21 0.940
4 Sergei Bobrovsky 23 0.939
5 Carey Price 28 0.934
6 Henrik Lundqvist 26 0.933
7 Kari Lehtonen 22 0.932
8 Niklas Backstrom 20 0.930
9 Ilya Bryzgalov 26 0.929
10 Ryan Miller 22 0.929
11 Gerber/Dubnyk 12 0.928
12 Jonas Hiller 29 0.927
13 Cam Ward 25 0.927
14 Miikka Kiprusoff 26 0.925
15 Antero Niitymaki 16 0.925
16 Marc-Andre Fleury 23 0.924
17 Jaroslav Halak 24 0.921
18 Roberto Luongo 24 0.920
19 Steve Mason 26 0.920
20 Jimmy Howard 24 0.919
21 Tomas Vokoun 24 0.918
22 Pekka Rinne 19 0.918
23 Nikolai Khabibulin 20 0.918
24 Dwayne Roloson 15 0.916
25 Brian Elliott 22 0.915
26 Michal Neuvirth 22 0.910
27 Peter Budaj 17 0.910
28 Jean-Sebastien Giguere 17 0.905
29 Marty Turco 20 0.904
30 Martin Brodeur 20 0.903
31 Dan Ellis 20 0.881

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.

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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):

Devan Dubnyk 57 70 9 0.842 0.871
Martin Gerber 6 10 1 0.833 0.900
Nikolai Khabibulin 87 113 23 0.736 0.791

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.

  • @ Robin Brownlee:

    Certainly, I criticize the professional media more than I do bloggers. That said, I’ve become more sympathetic to them since I’ve started at Oilers Nation, partially thanks to getting to know you and Jason a little bit, and partially thanks to the fact I have come to have a greater appreciation for how easy certain mistakes are when you write a lot.

    A big part of it is what I read. I don’t read that many bloggers regularly, but I read a broad spectrum of MSM reporting.

    Another big part of it is interactivity. If I read something in a blog I disagree with, generally I can communicate directly with the author. People who read the site see that communication. I generally don’t get that option with MSM articles.

    I also recognize the rather large difference between a newspaper writer and someone who moonlights on Oilers broadcasts. The expectations are different, and as a rule the performance gap is large too.

    My point about mainstream discourse was more that voices paid for by the Oilers seem to be becoming an increasingly large part of the discussion. Maybe there’s a gap between reality and my perception, but that’s one of the things I see and I don’t like it.

  • @ Robin Brownlee:

    Actually, I’d be very curious on your take. Do you feel the Oilers organization has greater control over the message getting out than they did formerly?

    It just seems to me that people like Stauffer and Tencer are the preferred outlet for stories, and the people who generally get the choicest interview opportunities, perhaps at the expense of more conventional reporters. Is that something you see?

    • Greater control, but not in the way you might be thinking.

      The Oilers and all teams are tighter with individual access to players these days. Teams want all non-scrum interviews arranged through the media relations people.

      There was a time when the beat people could simply call a player on the phone and do a one-on-one away from the rink so that everybody else didn’t jump in on what they were doing. Those of us who’d been around awhile had more opportunity to get unique stories and exclusive quotes because we had the most phone numbers in our laptops.

      Now, players are hearded around to scrums where everybody gets largely the same thing. Call a player at home? That’s frowned upon in a big way — even if the player trusts you enough to give you the number in the first place, the media staff gets all over you if you don’t run every interview past them.

      (I still call, of course).

  • That pre-occupation often goes hand-in-hand with the implication that non-MSM people are the ones providing the real insight.

    Ask yourself this: How many times do you criticize other bloggers and writers on other non-MSM websites, compared to how often you prod MSM reporters and outlets for the content they produce? As someone who walks the line between both of those worlds, I know what I see.

    I know its probably tough for you to admit it, because you are part of the MSM, but it is true that the blogging community does provide more real insight then professional hockey writers.

    Even a guy like Bob McKenzie who is probably the most respected hockey writer in Canada, is more famous for having great access to sources and scouts for things like his draft rankings then he is for any great personal insight on the game of hockey.

    I’m fine with that as I don’t think it is really the job of professional hockey writers to provide insight. They are there to provide access. It is an entertainment industry after all, and they are the deliverers of entertainment news. I think they do need to provide the public with opposing viewpoints when it comes to things like area dollars, but outside of that they just need to report the facts.

    I think the blogging community provides more real insight because only the most unique/insightful blogs get the readership. For every blog that is popular there are 50 that don’t get views. The MSM gets readership primarily because of access, and that’s the big difference.

    The MSM will of course get criticized more often, because they are omnipresent. Don’t think that bloggers don’t face criticism though. Some of the bloggers that have gotten semi-famous in the Oilers sphere have taken a tonne of criticism from readers on popular hockey forums. That’s the price of fame.

  • With all due respect, Jonathan, I think you’re letting the numbers pull you around a little bit, too.

    The problem with hockey – and the great thing about hockey – is that the numbers don’t measure everything.

    You mention that “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.”

    Well, the problem is, Jonathan, is there’s not really any way to measure the inconsistency and over-aggression of the non-goalies, other than the simple raw figure of PPGA. There’s no save percentage for skaters defending in their zone.

    So, yeah, one person might draw the conclusion that the power-play goals given up are the fault of the goaltender – but there’s also no real way of measuring the ineptitude of the defenders. But is there any doubt that they’ve been inept? (if not, please read Robin’s column today).

    I know you’re not trying to beat up on Khabby, but you are trying to beat up on the Oilers PR department, which isn’t out on any longer limb in its use of statistics, than you are.

    And I say that with respect.

  • positivebrontefan

    I get almost all my Oilers news here because it is virtually unfiltered. No one saying you can’t say this or can’t say that ~(except for my Mom looking over my shoulder)~. When I read MSM pieces or go on the Oilers Website of course I know it is filtered and at different levels, and I would imagine Robin and Jason when they write on here sometimes in the best interest of their relationship or access to a group of players sometimes hold back… somewhat. But we all get to say our piece, right or ridiculous, because other than madjams pieces, there is no wrong (I kid, I kid), and that’s what I love about this place!

  • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

    Ugh. You wanna be bloggers really need to give Bulin a break on twitter. Really 2 goals on 23 shots and you are going to cry that he has no business being in the game?

    Just amazes me the extremes we have out there with the fans.

  • I think the reason why the Oilers online community became so strong was directly because of what so many of us back then saw as a disconnect between what the two papers were writing and what was the actual truth.

    If anyone remembers the couple of years when Salo was terrible, you’d know that the team was either leaning on the press not to break out the knives, the press weren’t actually watching the games or there was such a comfortable atmosphere between one and the other that everything that could be written just wasn’t being written.

    Not to mention the worship of Kevin Lowe.

    And I know I’ve been over and over this with RB and I know which guys were and weren’t columnists back then but you had a long stretch when criticism just wasn’t part of the plan; and I don’t really believe the press should be able to exempt themselves from that particular opinion.

    Otherwise, you just send in a byline where you list off quotes and you’re nothing more than a stenographer.

    Anyway, yes, Stauffer’s gone the way now of promotion and propaganda and I still get a kick out of that Oil Change clip where Tencer was getting his Glenn Beck on during the postgame show and that’s the new reality.

    People spinning doesn’t bother me as much as it used to so I just go to the official site to watch Renney’s pre and postgames and see what I can take from that.