The conventional view is that the Edmonton Oilers are stuck with their goaltending tandem of Nikolai Khabibulin and Devan Dubnyk. The Oilers can’t move the former because of his decline in performance, his heavy contract, and they can’t dump him because of the over-35 clauses in the CBA. The Oilers don’t want to move the latter because he had a breakthrough in 2010-11 and provided the team with starter-calibre goaltending.
The reality, though, is that the Oilers do have a choice.
If the Oilers decide they want to rid themselves of Nikolai Khabibulin, they have some options. The first, most appetizing prospect is the trade route. We’ve seen teams like the Islanders (Brian Rolston) and the Panthers (Brian Campbell) take on players whose contracts are disproportionately heavy relative to their contributions. The possibility exists that the Oilers could trade Khabibulin, provided they were willing to sweeten the pot with a draft pick or promising prospect.
Back to Russia
If a trade proves impossible, or the cost simply too dear, the Oilers could always dump Khabibulin. Sheldon Souray was paid $4.5 million last season to play for the Hershey Bears after making some disparaging comments about Oilers’ management, so the team isn’t afraid to spend money for nothing if the provocation is sufficient. With Khabibulin, the Oilers could also do what teams like Chicago (Cristobal Huet) and Tampa Bay (Radim Vrbata) have done with their disappointments – work out an arrangement with a European team that would see the Oilers pick up the bulk of Khabibulin’s contract while he plays overseas.
The point here is that the Oilers aren’t trapped with Khabibulin: if they want to, they can pay either money (which they’ll be paying anyway) or futures to remove him from the team and open up a spot for someone else.
The question is whether such a move is worthwhile.
If the Oilers plan to contend for a playoff berth this coming season, my argument would be that such a move would be not only valuable, but necessary. Khabibulin’s post-lockout performance has been exceedingly poor, particularly last season, and no team serious about winning would rely on him. At the same time, a team serious about winning wouldn’t just hand over the reins to an unproven Dubnyk; they would want insurance – in the form of a player like Sergei Bobrovsky or Marty Turco – to give the team a second option in the event Dubnyk struggles. Those players are always available; as Bobrovsky’s replacement in Philly, Ilya Bryzgalov put it, “it’s a wolf’s world. Especially for goaltenders. There are so many of them and there is only one place in goal.”
If, on the other hand, the plan is to have one more poor season prior to contending seriously for a playoff berth, there’s no harm at all in hanging on to Khabibulin. Without Khabibulin last season, there’s no way the Oilers would have been able to secure the Nugent-Hopkins pick; they would still have finished the season with a high selection, but Khabibulin’s shoddy performance acted like an anchor, holding the team in place. The Oilers are on the hook for the money anyway, they don’t want to part with futures, and a few extra goals allowed only helps to add another draft pick.
Actions, more than words, show what a team’s goals are. As long as the team allows an obvious weakness like this to go unfixed, I’m content to believe that they’re chasing one more draft pick. No number of assurances (such as Tom Renney’s laughable suggestion last year that the team could make the postseason) are going to sway that belief unless they are accompanied by action.
That said, I’m not convinced that another bad year is directly contrary to the Oilers’ interests. The fan-base is still on-side, and the very real improvements from players like Hall and Eberle make it easy to cheer for the team and easier to enjoy the games. The defense is still a work in progress and much more difficult to solve than the goaltending; an extra year will allow a player like Jeff Petry to solidify a spot in the top-four, give long-shot Cam Barker a chance at showing something, and give prospects like Marincin and Teubert another year of growth. More importantly, it will allow the Oilers a little more time to address those blue-line weaknesses via trade.
It isn’t the course I’d prefer to see the team take. It’s hard not to grow impatient with losing, and given the pieces already in place it’s easy to believe that the time to aggressively move to improve the club is now. But the decision to continue the rebuilding work is entirely understandable, at least for one more year.