My heart almost stopped this morning as I read the subheading on Joanne Ireland’s Edmonton Journal article.
“Coach Renney expects battle next year even though Khabibulin still the man to beat.” The line jumped off the page at me. After briefly checking my calendar to be sure it was not, in fact, April 1, I plunged on into the article.
I was rewarded (rewarded? Is that the right word?) for my perseverance with a quote from Tom Renney:
“To me, at least, as we wrap this season up, Khabby deserves the opportunity to come out of the gate and nail it down,” Renney said. “I do think Dubby should look forward to playing at least as much next year as he did this year. And I don’t mind if there’s a battle for starts. That’s a healthy situation.”
I didn’t expect to hear the coach say that Khabibulin “deserves” anything, after the season he’s had.
Changing tacks for a moment, Ireland suggested that Dubnyk’s improved play had earned him more starts in 2010-11. Is that the case? Let’s look back at what the plan was earlier in the year.
Back in December, in the middle of Khabibulin’s best run of the season, Renney indicated to reporters that the plan was for Dubnyk to play “15 to 20 games.” How did that plan fare?
Leaving aside the eight starts Dubnyk got when Khabibulin was injured, Tom Renney chose to start Dubnyk on 24 occasions. So, yes, he did exceed the plan. Of the 12 starts over and above the 20 Renney indicated were in the cards, eight of them came courtesy a Khabibulin injury, and four came thanks to the coach.
My suspicion is that once the Oilers decided on Dubnyk over Jeff Deslauriers, they decided on his workload and that of Khabibulin, who was undoubtedly perceived as the stable veteran. Games came and went, results came in, but the plan remained the same: lean on Khabibulin behind the young team, give Dubnyk enough starts to continue developing.
If that is in fact the case, I can respect it. The Oilers in 2010-11 aren’t the kind of team that needs to make adjustments on the fly, so development is the order of the day. As importantly, even good goaltenders can be highly fickle over the short term, and the Oilers had every incentive to give Khabibulin time to play through his struggles.
Back To Next Year
I disagree with Renney’s use of the word ‘deserves,’ because if anyone deserves any consideration based on his work in an Oilers’ uniform, it is Devan Dubnyk and not Nikolai Khabibulin. This may seem like a minor distinction given what I’m about to say, but Khabibulin has played poorly while Dubnyk has exceeded expectations, and it annoys me a little bit that the coach is being so reticent with his praise for arguably the best positive surprise on the team this season.
Now that I’ve made that point, I’m 100% in agreement with Renney’s decision not to throw Khabibulin under the bus, for two reasons. The first is obvious: Khabibulin’s contract isn’t going anywhere anytime soon (barring an unlikely series of events that would include jail time and the Oilers voiding it) thanks to dollars and age, and so it serves no useful purpose for the coach to firebomb him.
Secondly, barring further deterioration due to age/health, this season represents pretty much the floor of Khabibulin’s ability. In six seasons since the NHL lockout, Khabibulin’s save percentage has ranged from a low of 0.886 to a high of 0.919, with an average save percentage of 0.902. While not impressive, that’s better than 10 points above his save percentage this season, and it is at least possible that Khabibulin will play above his post-lockout average next year.
That doesn’t mean I want to see Khabibulin handed the starting job next season without Dubnyk being given a chance, but it does mean that I think the gap between their performances is going to be much narrower, and it makes no sense to count Khabibulin out at this juncture either.
While I’m At It
Final note: the same reasoning applies to Jeff Deslauriers, and his resplendent 0.904 AHL save percentage. Deslauriers’ career numbers for the four seasons prior to this one point to a guy who fits the number three role well; his AHL numbers have been good, while his NHL numbers have been serviceable if sub-par.
It might be over between the Oilers and Deslauriers, but I think he’ll make someone a pretty good depth goaltender next season, and that is not without value. Particularly if he’s willing to sign an AHL contract.