One year ago, Nikolai Khabibulin was almost entirely written-off as an NHL goaltender. Now, nine starts into 2011-12, he is playing as well as he has at any point in his lengthy and successful NHL career.
It likely wasn’t a scenario that anybody following the Edmonton Oilers would have gambled on over the summer, and for good reason. Nikolai Khabibulin was signed in the summer of 2009 to replace Dwayne Roloson as the Oilers’ veteran starting goaltender ushered in along with new head coach Pat Quinn, an emphasis on tougher play and a promise to compete for the playoffs. While other options were available in net, Khabibulin offered the Oilers a winning track record, with the expectation that he would not only stabilize the situation between the pipes but also allow the Oilers to slowly develop goaltending prospects like Devan Dubnyk and Jeff Deslauriers.
Things didn’t work out the way Oilers’ management expected them to. In his debut season, Khabibulin played just 18 games before falling to injury, forcing the Oilers to turn to the untested duo of Jeff Deslauriers and Devan Dubnyk. Both players showed flashes of brilliance, but neither was ready for the responsibility, and their inability to close the door was a contributing factor in the Oilers’ last place finish that year.
The next season, Khabibulin managed to stay healthy for the majority of the year but was handily outplayed by the maturing Dubnyk. A 14-game losing streak that stretched from December through to February was the lowest point in the campaign and marked a 24-game stretch to close out the season during which Khabibulin would record just two wins. His save percentage plummeted to its lowest level since 2005-06, and Khabibulin found himself ahead of only Islanders’ punch-line Rick DiPietro among goalies with more than 25 games.
Off-ice issues further complicated an already difficult situation. In February of 2010, while absent from the Oilers due to injury, Khabibulin was arrested and charged with speeding and impaired driving. In the summer, he was convicted; an appeal was dropped the following year and Khabibulin was sentenced to 30 days – half of it to be spent in Arizona’s infamous Tent City, where temperatures can top 100 degrees Fahrenheit and where sheriff Joe Arpaio once bragged that the government spent more money feeding the guard dogs then the prisoners.
Thus, the scene was set for this season. There was little reason for confidence in the oft-injured Khabibulin coming off one of the worst seasons of his career and a stint in prison on top of it. History showed that the majority of goaltenders his age never regained their game after losing it.
Yet, nine starts into 2011-12, Nikolai Khabibulin has been the NHL’s finest goaltender. His 0.964 SV% is a whisker behind that of Josh Harding, who has played in just five games, and he is at or near the league lead in every other statistical category.
Perhaps most impressively, Khabibulin has been good in every single game that he’s played. His worst save percentage night came on October 17, where he allowed one goal on 12 shots in a win over the Nashville Predators; it’s the only time his numbers have dipped below the 0.920 mark in a single contest.
It’s a performance that has won over fans, who have chanted “Khabi! Khabi! Khabi!” at home games; a far cry from the prior two seasons where nicknames like “ReKhabibulin” and “Khabiboozin” were a constant presence on fan sites.
Naturally, it has been pointed out that nine games does not a season make – I’ve done it myself. It’s a fair point, and the only way Khabibulin can address it is by continuing to play well as the season goes on. Whether he is up to the challenge remains to be seen.
There’s no denying, however, that Khabibulin has done everything he possibly can so far this season.