For reasons I can’t quite figure out, the myth that Nikolai Khabibulin played tough opponents while Devan Dubnyk got carefully selected starts still has advocates around these parts. I don’t understand it.
Back at the start of February, I took a comprehensive look at the opposition Khabibulin and Dubnyk faced, and determined there was a marginal difference in the difficulty of the teams they were playing. I summed up that article this way:
In conclusion, Nikolai Khabibulin has faced very slightly tougher sledding than Devan Dubnyk, even when we allow for his greater percentage of home games, when both were healthy. This may show a tendency on the part of the coaching staff to shield Dubnyk, but the difference is so minimal that I’d argue they either aren’t doing it intentionally or they’re very, very bad at it.
And yet, the myth persists, so I decided to look at the problem from a few other angles.
Where Khabibulin Got His wins
- Home game vs. MTL
- Home game vs. DAL
- Home game vs. CBJ
- Home game vs. TB
- Home game vs. STL
- Home game vs. FLA
- Home game vs. CGY
- Road game vs. TOR
- Road game vs. CHI
- Road game vs. CHI
- 3 of Khabibulin’s 10 wins (30.0%) came on the road
- 2 of Khabibulin’s 10 wins (20.0%) came against Western Conference playoff teams
- 2 of Khabibulin’s 10 wins (20.0%) came on the road against Western Conference playoff teams
- 3 of Khabibulin’s 10 wins (30.0%) came when he allowed 3+ goals
- 1 of Khabibulin’s 10 wins (10.0%) came when he allowed 4+ goals
Where Dubnyk Got His wins
- Home game vs. VAN
- Home game vs. CBJ
- Home game vs. ATL
- Home game vs. NYI
- Road game vs. VAN
- Road game vs. COL
- Road game vs. NSH
- Road game vs. PHX
- Road game vs. SJ
- Road game vs. MTL
- Road game vs. ANA
- 8 of Dubnyk’s 12 wins (66.7%) came on the road
- 6 of Dubnyk’s 12 wins (50.0%) came against Western Conference playoff teams
- 5 of Dubnyk’s 12 wins (41.7%) came on the road against Western Conference playoff teams
- 3 of Dubnyk’s 12 wins (25.0%) came when he allowed 3+ goals
- 0 of Dubnyk’s 12 wins (0.0%) came when he allowed 4+ goals
Dubnyk was more likely to win on the road, more likely to win against good teams, and more likely to win on the road against good teams. Khabibulin had a higher percentage of wins in games where he allowed 3 or more goals, and unlike Dubnyk he managed a win in a game where he allowed four goals.
Being “The Man”
Then there are those who argue that the shelter is more of a psychological issue related to games played than it is to the actual strength of Dubnyk’s opponents. The theory goes that Khabibulin was the veteran starter, with all the expectations, while Dubnyk was the young backup able to come in and play with less stress.
Logically, it’s an argument that makes no sense to me. At the start of this season Khabibulin had a three year contract for a lot of money, and there was no way the Oilers were going to demote him. Meanwhile, Dubnyk had to battle from Day 1 of training camp with Jeff Deslauriers and Martin Gerber for the backup job. Once Deslauriers was finally demoted, Dubnyk’s spot still wasn’t secure: the coach showed an obvious preference for Khabibulin, and any slip-up on Dubnyk’s part would have led to questions about whether he deserved an NHL job in Edmonton, and the possibility of following Jeff Deslauriers down to the AHL. I don’t see how that can possibly be less stressful than being signed for the next here seasons.
But let’s ignore that logic for a moment. Let’s say the extra games in front of a bad team really did shatter Khabibulin’s confidence, and that Dubnyk would have had the same problem. It’s a laughable concept because Dubnyk saw over 1000 shots, just 287 fewer than Khabibulin. But even so – how bad would Dubnyk have to be over those 287 shots to match Khabibulin’s save percentage?
The answer: atrocious. Worse than Vesa Toskala at his worst. Dubnyk wuld have needed to post a 0.798 save percentage over the next 287 shots to get down to Khabibulin’s level.
What This Is & What This Isn’t
First, what this isn’t.
This isn’t an excuse to beat up on Khabibulin. Yes, he was brutal, but it’s difficult to imagine that he isn’t better next year. As I wrote yesterday:
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.
Secondly, this isn’t a wholesale endorsement of Dubnyk. Yes, he was excellent this season, but he’s a young goaltender with an uneven track record. As I noted at the end of February, I need to see more sustained success before I trust him.
So, what is my aim with this piece? Simple: to take the blinders off. Khabibulin had a bad year, Dubnyk had a good year, and the evidence suggests that the coaching staff did Dubnyk no favours – he earned his extra wins by being the better goaltender. As far as I’m concerned, denigrating Dubnyk’s performance because he wasn’t “the man” or based on a misguided notion that he got spotted against lightweight opponents is flat-out wrong. Dubnyk had a good year; he may not be able to repeat it but let’s at least acknowledge that his play was an unmitigated bright spot in a too-gloomy season.