Nikolai Khabibulin has had a superb start to the 2011-12 NHL season. After a year where he imploded badly, allowing Devan Dubnyk to steal the starting job later in the season, he appears to be back at the height of his powers.
Prior to the veteran goaltender stopping 35 of 37 shots against the powerhouse Vancouver Canucks, Oilersnation’s own Robin Brownlee took the time to praise Khabibulin’s performance:
Those who scoff Nikolai Khabibulin’s .969 saves-percentage through his first four games isn’t sustainable are selling him short. Of course it isn’t sustainable. So what? While I count myself among those who doubted Khabibulin could rebound from a 2010-11 campaign in which he had a pitiful .890 saves percentage, he has so far SIUTBOHC. He has been outstanding with the minutes he’s been given and deserves credit. Will it last? Not like this. Again, so what? If he comes in at something around .910 when this season is in the books, that would represent a pretty decent comeback season, no?
Brownlee is correct on a couple of things here. Khabibulin has been outstanding, and he does deserve credit for his hot start. And, if he can finish the year around the 0.910 SV% mark, it would represent a pretty phenomenal comeback – on par with some of the greatest goaltending comebacks in the last two decades.
When I read that, I started wondering something: how common is it for a bad goalie (i.e. a gaolie who finishes the year with a sub-0.900 SV%) to have a five-game stretch like Khabibulin is having right now? In short, can we be confident that Khabibulin is going to have a strong year because of this phenomenal start?
Here are 10 of the league’s worst goaltenders from last season. I’ve taken their best 4+ game stretches from the year, and calculated the save percentage over that span, placing it alongside their save percentage over the season as a whole:
|Player||Span||Short SV%||Overall SV%|
|Mike Smith||7 games||0.944||0.899|
|Dan Ellis||4 games||0.971||0.898|
|Marty Turco||4 games||0.944||0.898|
|Curtis McElhinney||4 games||0.943||0.897|
|Antero Niittymaki||7 games||0.940||0.896|
|Peter Budaj||5 games||0.948||0.895|
|Brian Elliott||5 games||0.955||0.893|
|Jonas Gustavsson||4 games||0.959||0.890|
|Nikolai Khabibulin||4 games||0.957||0.890|
|Rick DiPietro||4 games||0.945||0.886|
It goes without saying that good goalies can put together a solid streak of play, but it’s interesting to note how many bad goaltenders are capable of doing the same thing. It makes sense; players don’t keep getting games if they get shelled every time the coach sends them out.
It also makes sense when we recall that Brian Boucher set the modern era record for consecutive shutouts in 2003-04 as part of a larger streak. Those five shutouts in a row are what tend to get remembered, but Boucher was good for almost three months straight. From November 14, 2003 to January 24, 2004, Boucher played 17 games, collecting just two losses over that span and putting up a 0.948 SV%. He went 2-17-4 in games outside that stretch, and finished the year with an overall save percentage of 0.906.
Because virtually any NHL goalie is capable of putting together a strong stretch of games, the fear with Khabibulin isn’t that he regresses – we know that he will and that it’s just a matter of time. The fear is that this torrid start isn’t the kick-off of a strong season, but rather a momentary blip before poor play sets in.
It would be great to see Khabibulin come back around the 0.910 SV% mark; that kind of performance over a full season would be a huge boon to both the player and the team. Unfortunately, it’s still too early to pencil him in for that kind of record, given what his post-lockout numbers look like.