Nikolai Khabibulin ≠ Tim Thomas

“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:

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  • 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.

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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.

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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.

  • Stack Pad Save

    SO … what your really saying is that Nicoli’s contract was a huge overpay, he should be our backup and if he continues to be our starting goalie even though he is posting numbers similar to what you outline in this article we can confirm that he is being played in order to ensure that the oilers tank another season?

  • John B.

    First time caller. Long time listener.

    I Have to say that this article hits the nail on the head on the dire reality of our goalie situation (especially the last paragraph summary).

    The sad fact is that the only reason he will not be on the team in October will be because of injury and not performance.

    Well written article Mr. Willis.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    It’s much easier to rebound from a difficult yr like Tim Thomas did last season when he has a championship caliber team in front of him. It will be a monumental task for Nikolai to pull this off playing behind the last place Oilers 2 yrs running. Any comparison between the two situations is laughable. It takes a small mind to lay the blame at the feet of a goaltender when nothing games are the norm here 5 yrs running.

    Khabibulin will certainly bounce back and play meaningful games again, unfortunately it will have to be on his next contract after his sentence in Edmonton comes to an end.

      • Quicksilver ballet

        We’re micro managing here. I get the impression that some here think it appears as simple as if Tim Thomas wore an Oiler jersey last season the Oilers would be preparing to raise that 6th Stanley Cup banner. There’s no denying it’s the 6 players on the ice that contribute greatly to a goaltenders save % and not just the goaltender himself.

        You put Khabibulin on the Bruins and that save % is closer to .925. It must be difficult strapping the pads on every evening knowing you’re about to participate in another nothing game.

        • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

          By that logic the goalies on the worst 3-4 teams in the league all would have been in the record books this year if they had just played for those Bruins.

          • Quicksilver ballet

            When a team is this bad, all is lost and it’s difficult to put value in any statistical category. If the team is more competitive out of the gate this season, Khabibulin and his .920 save percentage will be a part of it.

          • Quicksilver ballet

            After an extensive study Obbie i’ve come to the conclusion that Khabby is the Russian equivelant to Gerry Cheevers…..he only shows up for games that mean something.

            Can i get a thumbs up on that?

          • Quicksilver ballet

            418 gms played and a GAA of 2.81 for Cheevers.

            743 gms played and a GAA of 2.59 for Khabibulin.

            …so, Cheevers finishes a distant first loser in that race. Did Cheesy even win a cup?

          • Quicksilver ballet

            Have to believe games played approaching nearly double what Cheevers played says alot about each athlete.

            With Chris Osgood having as many wins as Cheevers had games played, sure makes Osgoods 3 cups vs Gerry’s 2 look like a slam dunk for the Hall of Fame.

          • So in the 08-09 season, which of those playoff games weren’t big games?

            It’s a good thing Chicago was scoring 3.67 goals per game through the first 2 rounds because they needed all of them to make it past Calgary and Vancouver.

          • cableguy - 2nd Tier Fan

            have you actually taken a look at his career stats? you should, to prevent yourself from looking more foolish.

            khabibulin, in his career, has had a .920 save % twice, and has never been higher. in years his team made the playoffs (the competitive team you speak of) his save % were:







            .910 (stanley cup winner)


            So, you are suggesting khabibulin would put up essentially a career year with a better team in front of him?

            possible? yes. likely? about as likely as brownlee winning Miss Edmonton Indy

          • Quicksilver ballet

            Yes Cableguy, i’m saying he’s saved the best for last. I have to be honest with you, i didn’t spend much/any time surveying the data you inputed here. I try not to pay any attention to the past.

            This goaltending issue is a farce. The only difference between 35 and 40 is Dubnyk is playing with fear, the fear of losing his NHL job, he’s still very much trying to show he belongs in the NHL. Khabibulin on the other hand has nothing to fear/prove, he’s forgotten more about goaltending than Dubnyk will probably ever know. Nikolai wasn’t born yesterday, he knows this team was set up to fail these last two years. Judge him on the next two yrs and not the last two.

            You’d think after spending 500.00 on a fine set of eye glasses you kids should be able to see things better, maybe you should take those glasses back and get them checked.

            QSB is out.

          • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

            He should have alot to fear…. b/c another 15 – 20 games like last year and i’m thinking he’s riding the bus in the AHL for the duration of his contract.

          • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

            Hey I think theirs a good chance he’ll have a decent bounce back season putting “platoon” type numbers (call it a SV% in the 25 – 50 range).

            I just don’t buy into the non-sense that his SV% was *significantly* affect by the team in front of him.

  • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

    I’ve been a detractor of the signing since day one, but I do think it’s resonable that Bulin could put up a decent platoon like performance, maybe something in the .902 – .908 range… good enough anyways that if DD put up numbers like last year goaltending wouldn’t be the biggest weakness on the team.

  • The fallacy that Thomas had a bad year a couple seasons ago must be dispelled for a few reasons. Number 1, it should stop people like Stauffer who should know better from trying to pull fast ones over the unwashed masses. Number 2, it highlights the best method for utilizing goaltenders from a Championship team.

    The Bruins had a Vezina winning goalie on a big contract and didnt hesitate to rip games away from him the minute they had a superior option even though he was largely unproven. When Thomas returned to previous form they didnt hesitate to re-instate him as the clear cut #1 starter. Here in Edmonton we had a goalie who was obviously not getting the job done and the team let his contract dictate playing time even though they had clearly superior options.

    If this club wants to emulate the success of championship teams around the league then they best take note of how the most important single position was handled. Stop the puck or ride the Pine. No other philosophy should ever be followed.

    • That’s why some coaches are considered above others. They do their job. Some just can’t make difficult decisions. But leaving Bulin on the bench really should not be a difficult decision.

      But at the end of the last season, Renny said “Habby deserves to start next year as the #1”. That is not a leaders call whatsoever.

      Renny needs to do his job right. Or leave.

  • The argument that Khabbys save % was so bad was the team in front of him sucked or at the least the defense, then why was Dubnyks better then.

    Also, saying that Khabby is going to rebound is also a weak statement, he can’t possible be that bad again and therefore gives Khabbys supporters a weak argument that he has improved.

    I’m not going to throw blame at Khabby for his playing; I blame the Oilers for giving this guy playing time while taking developmental playing time from Dubnky. I’m going to blame the Oilers for not going out and getting a better player.

    I think Khabby is done, most of the knowledgeable Oiler fans know he may improve, but only slightly. Given the playing time he receives this year, if it’s half the games then you could make the argument the Oilers are in no hurry to improve this club and are looking at another top 10 pick at the very least. One of Worst player on the club. IMO

  • CanaDave

    I think that it’s tough to make comparisons based purely on numbers between a player on a division champion and a player on the 30th place team in the NHL. The optimistic part of me hopes that he hoped he could coast by purely on talent, especially later in the season when he’d seen so many horrible turnovers and missed defensive assignments and probably felt that as soon as he gave up the first goal the game was over.

    As soon as I typed that I realized my optimistic position is depressing at best, but I believe the best case scenario for the Oilers in Goal this year is to have Dubnyk take the #1 job from Khabibulin over the course of the season similar to how Corey Crawford took the job away from Turco in Chicago this year.

    Fast forward 2 years and the Oilers have Dubnyk as a solid #1 with Roy, Bunz and Perhonen all nipping at his heels and the Oilers could actually have quality Goaltending depth in the organization which would be a lovely change from the last decade now.

  • CanaDave

    First, Khabby is well past his prime and I think there is little chance he will have a bounce back year. I doubt if Stauffer thinks anything different, but he knows who signs his checks.

    Even so there is no reason not to have him on the Oilers roster this year. DD will be given every opportunity to continue as #1 as he was at the end of last year. This should give the Oil a good body of work to know what they have in DD. Can they go forward with him as a number 1 or do they look at other options. Ideally Khabby will play ~ 20 games and just be an expensive back up on a team with an excellent revenue stream and no current cap issues.

    If Khabby does the unlikely and finds his former talent, still play DD at least 40 games even if he is the second best goalie on the team. The Oil need to know what they have with DD.

    With the venom spewed in these comments, Khabby’s 20 games better be on the road.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Now my take on the year. The Oilers will be more entertaining. Gagner will score 53 points, playing with better team mates. Habby will win a few and lose a few. Hemsky will get injured. We will miss the playoffs. We will hate and love Tambo. We will hang on draft choices and argue about it starting in December until June. The arena deal will fall through because of too many small town thinkers. Robin B. will rip many an oilernationer a new a$$hole on this blog. However, we will be almost ready to focus on one-ice hockey come 2012/13. By then Katz will be in full Peter Pocklington mode and our team will be grooming to move to Quebec City in 2014/15. Florida Panthers will move into the old Rexall Place and we will finish 30th our first year back in the league in 2015/16.

    So, ya, same old, same old.

  • Love Monkey

    I agree with QSB to the extent that Khabibulin is the number one goalie and should get a chance to battle it out and try to post a .910 or better. I’m not as optimistic as QSB, but he’s a fundamentally better goalie than Dubnyk and it seems like (despite being a “pro”) he tends to sandbag when the games are meaningless.

    Something I’d be interested in would be the quality of opponent that Khabby played vs. Dubnyk. For at least the two thirds of the year, Renney “hid” Dubnyk quite a bit. Obviously not an excuse for crappy numbers on Khabby’s part, but he tended to get the tougher match-ups because he was “the veteran.”

  • Zamboni Driver

    A bad guy and a worse goalie.

    For two more years wooohooo.

    And really? Bob said ‘it’s not beyond the realm of possibility’ eh? Quite insightful from the Politburo.

  • Zamboni Driver

    The team stunk last year, it’s true, it’s true.

    But: Khabibulin’s SV% was .890. That’s 110 goals allowed for every 1000 shots. Dubnyk’s SV% was .916, or eighty four goals allowed for every 1000 shots.

    That’s a difference of 26 goals per 1000 shots between the two goalies.

    How many games do the Oilers need to play to allow 26 goals? Four? Five? Maybe six?

    Factor this over the course of a season (1800 saves is definitely not out of the realm of possibility if Dubnyk stays healthy and they ride him wild) and you’re looking at a difference of about FIFTY GOALS over the course of a season.

    Or as I see it, about ten games worth.

    • I really hope the Oilers don’t give up 5 goals a game this year….

      Or 26/4 = 6.5 GA

      Or 26/5 = 5.2 GA

      Or 26/6 = 4.3 GA

      Seeing as their Goals Against per game last year was 3.17 (only Colorado was worse at 3.5 – EDIT: ooops Atlantapeg was also 3.2) I sure as hell hope they arent that bad……. Jeeze… 50 Goals I hope that is more like 19-21 games worth next year…


      Also, They Oilers took about 2600 Shots against and with the 3.17 GA/G that equals a rough save percentage between all goalies last year of 0.900… If we can just average the two out to an “average” save percentage of say 0.910 that means a total of 26 less goals for the entire year which is 2.85 GAA which would place us about 20-22 in the league (in that category at least… a pretty crucial category though, no?)