The Goaltending Plan

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.

The Plan

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.

  • Whatever Renney’s says now means nothing, and aren’t of any concern to me. It gives hope to Khabby to work his tail off to get his game on track. The Oilers for once are handling a young goalie properly, and everyones crapping the bed. Give khabby hope and if not he will hopefully be a solid back-up next year. The organization won’t dump him in the minors cause if anything makes free agents not want to sign in a city, it is how that organization treats there vets. The Oilers are not risking the optics of that.

    My hope is Dubby gets 45 Starts, and Khabby is reliable and can hold the fort for 35. There are not alot alot of goalies who can handle 60-70 games a year, and Dubby not ready for that now. The only ones that consistantly can do it are Lundquist, Brodeur (two or three years back.) The organization can not afford to bring in the next unproven “monster,” from europe and risk relying on a Dubby to play 60-70 games.

  • Crash

    I’d support the following approach:

    1) sit down with Khabby (behind closed doors) and tell him they are signing another veteran and that if he gets outplayed he’ll be sent down to OKC. If he pouts then buy him out and eat the loss. We’re not pressed up against the cap and there are plenty of rookie contracts headed for the NHL club in the next 1-2 years so cap space should be manageable.

    2) offer Gerber (or another vet) a one-way deal for 1 year (or 2 if you need) on the basis that its between him and Khabby to play with Dubnyk next year based on performance.

  • Khabbi was a poor signing but in my estimation has become a very important piece of the “rebuild” puzzle. Obviously he was signed at a time the organization thought they were close to a playoff caliber team…… oops! When the organization finally realized they had to blow up the team last year obviously they couldn’t move his contract along with Horc’s and Souray’s contracts. To my point…. If the Oilers view Dubby as “the guy” then what you need is competition and experiance to move Dubby along at the same pace as the rest of the young Oilers. Who thinks Dubby’s numbers would be the same is he played 40+ games with an AHL squad in front of him?…. not many. Thus Khabbi can be both mentor and competition without having to worry about Khabbi’s future with the club….. play till he’s broken or retired.

  • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

    @ JW,
    I guess it depends on your definition of “sheltering”. If sheltering means that you don’t expose a goalie to an entire NHL season of 74 games in his rookie year, then yes, they did shelter Doobie this year.
    There is a big difference between “being the go to guy” and playing 74 NHL games and being the “backup” and playing 36 or whatever he played. Its the mental sheltering, not the physical.
    I think that Khabby will be fine next year in the 30-40 games backup/mentor role with Doobie being exposed to more games and the mental anxiety of being THE guy.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Nothing matters till we have something that resembles a decent top 7 and a capable blueline. All this mumbling under our breath and pointing fingers at the goalies is useless.

  • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

    Is Matty Garon available this summer (too lazy to look– I’m at work)? He is an ideal platoon goalie that can step up when needed IF he is willing to come here again. As I recall, he was stellar in shootouts one year too, which could help us if we are actually trying to pick up points and squeeze into a playoff spot.

    I have no faith in O. Roy at this point, though things could certainly change with time. We do need to look elsewhere in compiling some long term G depth as well… one of Washington’s trio would be unreal.