“Can the Bulin Wall get it back?” is the question that Bob Stauffer asks this morning over at the Edmonton Oilers’ official website. Naturally, given that the blog posting is written by an employee of the Oilers Radio Network and appears on the Oilers’ official website, Stauffer’s answer to that question doesn’t reference either hellfire or snowballs.
What Stauffer does is leave his answer somewhat nebulous: “[I]t wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that the ‘Bulin wall bounces back.” While that’s vague enough that nobody can reasonably disagree with it, we can look at Stauffer’s supporting arguments for that claim and see if there’s any real merit to them. Essentially, Stauffer makes three points:
- Khabibulin recovered from a brutal run in 2005-06
- Former teammates note that Khabibulin is competitive and a hard worker
- Other veteran goaltenders – the examples given are Dwayne Roloson and Tim Thomas – have bounced back despite their age
Let’s grant Stauffer’s second point. I have no trouble at all believing that Khabibulin, who for a stretch was one of the top goaltenders in the world, possesses both work ethic and a competitive drive; he hardly would have enjoyed the sort of career he has if he didn’t. So instead of questioning that, let’s look at his other two points.
How well did Khabibulin recover from his disastrous 2005-06 run?
Khabibulin’s numbers that season (17-26-6, 3.35 GAA and .886 SVP) were very similar to what he posted in Edmonton last year… Whispers around the NHL at that time were that Khabibulin was finished; they would prove to be a tad premature. Over the next three seasons Khabibulin’s numbers would improve and so did the Blackhawks. From a .886 SVP in 2005-06, to a .902 in 2006-07, to .909 in 2007-08 and culminating with a stellar 25-8-7 record, 2.33 GAA, and a .919 SVP in 2008-09 when he fended off the challenge of Cristobal Huet to be Chicago’s starting goaltender on a team that went three rounds in the play-offs.
To answer that question, I’m going to ignore 2005-06 entirely. We’ll call it a one-off, a fluke, whatever; instead, we’ll compare two periods: the four seasons Khabibulin played prior to 2005-06 (ignoring the 1999-2001 stretch where he only played two NHL games thanks to a vicious contract dispute) and the four seasons after 2005-06. By limiting the period to four seasons, we also omit Khabibulin’s disastrous 2010-11; in short, we’re assuming that the two worst seasons of Khabibulin’s career don’t matter when it comes to analyzing his talent. (Two other ways of doing this would be to compare pre-lockout performance to post-lockout performance, or throwing out Khabibulin’s 0.919 season as a fluke to balance tossing out his worst two seasons – but while those might be more accurate when it comes to predicting future performance they’re also terribly depressing, so we’ll ignore them. This particular analysis is the most flattering possible for Khabibulin.)
- Four seasons prior to 2005-06: 253GP, 0.916 SV%
- Four seasons after 2005-06: 170GP, 0.909 SV%
In a bubble, those numbers seem pretty comparable – goalie performance fluctuates, after all – but that’s essentially the difference between a top-15 starting goaltender and a 20-25 ranked starting goalie. Over a 50 game segment, that’s 10 more goals against.
Now, if we take these results from our bizarrely optimistic analysis and use them as a prediction of Khabibulin’s return to form for 2011-12 – in other words, we assume that he’ll bounce back most of the way, but allow roughly one more goal every five games, we’re projecting a 0.902 SV%. A 0.902 SV% would have ranked Khabibulin 57th among NHL goaltenders last year. In other words, Oilers fans should hope that he doesn’t bounce back the way he did following the 2005-06 debacle.
Other veteran goaltenders have bounced back.
That is the funny thing about the goaltending position, age doesn’t seem to matter if a guy has the competitive spirit and drive he can bounce back late in his career, and as a result it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that the ‘Bulin wall bounces back as well.
This is an intriguing argument – one that interested me enough to go into detail analyzing it last month. I found 11 comparables for Khabibulin’s situation, and 10 of the 11 either retired following their bad year, or continued to perform poorly the following season. The only exception was Dwayne Roloson.
What about Tim Thomas? The answer to that is pretty easy – he never really fell down. Between 2007-09, Thomas posted elite save percentage numbers (0.921 and 0.933). In 2009-10, he stumbled badly – his 0.915 save percentage was only a little better than average for a starting goaltender, in the same miserable neighborhood as pre-lockout Khabibulin (0.916 SV%). Then he bounced back and won the Vezina last season. Suffice to say, the fall from ‘elite goaltender’ to ‘very good goaltender’ isn’t at all comparable to Khabibulin’s decline.
Honestly, even Roloson (who I included in my study for the sake of a larger sample) is a stretch. His 0.901 SV% in 2007-08 – his bad year – would represent a major comeback for Khabibulin if he managed to post it in 2011-12.
It isn’t outside the realm of possibility that Khabibulin bounces back. That said, if he can return to the level of even league-average starter next season (0.911 SV%) it would be far and away the biggest comeback of any goalie his age in recent history, and the single biggest one-year improvement of his career. Honestly, even projecting him to get back to the level of Jeff Deslauriers in 2009-10 is blue-skying at this point.