The Return of The Bulin Wall

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.

    • book¡e

      Fist in Stopping Trash?

      Really, you didn’t feel totally shameful posting that, like “Wow, this totally sucks, but I can’t come up with anything better before someone else posts, so shamefully, I will go ahead with it”.

      Was it something like that?

      🙂

      • Jerk Store

        Release the pigeons / let the balloons fly. book¡e, you and I agree on something. I realize you may not give a rodents rump that I do agree with you, but it is still a day I will long remember. Down with senseless FISTING!

        And, Go Oil!

      • Romulus' Apotheosis

        and @Jerk Store

        Glad to see you two hugging it out after going at each other over disrespecting other commenters. There is nothing quite like a mutual enemy to bring people together. That and of course morally scolding others! Always feels great! “Don’t disrespect others!” feels just as good as “You Sir, should feel Shame!” As long as you get to sip the sweet, sweet nectar of moral indignation! mmmmm… morality! Delicious!

        http://oilersnation.com/2011/11/8/finding-a-way-oilers-get-it-done/page/2#comments

        Oh and if one FIST comment bothers you… Ignore it. We aren’t hard up for comment space around here. There is no reason we cannot love our team in deeply irrational and ridiculous ways alongside tempered analysis.

        • book¡e

          I actually don’t mind the ‘Fist’ movement here at ON, and I didn’t mean it as an insult. I honestly can envision you trying to come up with something relevant and you came up with ‘Fist in Stopping Trash’. The first three words – perfect, but Trash – it makes no sense. It would be like Fist in Stopping Teeth. It’s just so random.

          You can’t tell me that you looked at it when you typed it and said – ‘perfect’ – you totally said – “Whatever, it’s an acronym for FIST even if it makes no sense.”

          That is what I was ‘poking fun’ at. Its known as ‘good natured ribbing’. The ‘shame’ thing carries it’s own soft humerous tones – as in ‘I feel shame’. I guess that didn’t come across on the interwebs.

          • Romulus' Apotheosis

            Well you are definitely right that I did not think that much about it. Certainly less than you did. It was a silly comment. That was the point. You and many others did not see the fun in it… ok, whatever.

            I do not mind the ribbing at all! I was not sore or anything. Just pointing out how uptight people get around here sometimes and how slippery the standards of respect are apparently. Personally, I do not think policing comments is very interesting or useful.

            Also, I guess you are not familiar with that rather common sports exclamation: “get that trash/garbage/s@#t outta here!” I have heard variations of it used for hockey, tennis, basketball, football, etc. And, in hockey at least, I think the phrase applies particularly well to goalies. The guy who titled this video seems to have heard it:

            this guy too

    • Jerk Store

      Seriously, I can appreciate a clever relevant FIST reference as well as anyone. However, it has become common place for drivel to be posted for the sake of being the initial FIST poster. I don’t mean to pick on R.A. as whether I agree with him or not he typically seems to take a lot of care in his posts on this site. But even he has resorted to re-living a scene from a Mighty Ducks movie where Goldberg and the kids are “clearing out the trash” or whatever it was. (Yes, I have seen the movies, I had young kids once). At any rate I realize how precious the “Fist” custom is to you and obviously “Fisting” and “Rodent” in the same sentence is distracting to some. I am just saying, it does not do anything for me . . . however you are welcome to enjoy the inevitable fist that will accompany the majority of ON aricles (save RB).

      • Max Powers - Team HME Evans

        You can slide the odd FIST past Brownlee. They can’t be blatant or have to be clandestine. Check Nov 2 and Oct 28.

        RB might go back and edit now but I think he has more class than that.

  • Dan the Man

    Glad to see Khabibulin rebounding like he is after the beating he’s taken over the last couple of years by the fans and media.

    The crazy thing is that his numbers would be a little better if not for a couple of late goals. (One with 1 second remaining and one with about 3 minutes remaining)

  • Spaghetti - Team Facalto

    @Romulus’ Apotheosis & @book¡e

    I’m confused, is fisting bad or good?

    Things were so much easier before Brownlees brainwashing wore off.

  • Jerk Store

    one of the things i love about ON is the complete random tangents post go on. 5 of the first 7 are nothing about Khabby. love it. i really do. i am actually just surprised we don’t discuss politics and religion on here.

  • Romulus' Apotheosis

    Talbot17 pointed to this interesting nugget yesterday. bears repeating for those who missed it. He wrote:

    Interesting fact on Bulin by LeBrun on ESPN:

    “There’s an interesting career pattern when it comes to Khabibulin. When he arrived in Tampa Bay in 2001, the team was a cellar-dweller and missed the playoffs again in his first full year. But it rose from the ashes and, of course, won the Cup in 2004. When he went to the Blackhawks in 2005-06, they were bottom-feeders. In his last season there, he helped backstop the young, rebuilding team to the Western Conference finals. Had he signed a five-year deal instead of a four-year deal, he likely, would have another Cup ring. And now in Edmonton, where the Oilers have been bottom-feeders for a few years, are on the rise with Khabibulin again in net. Just a coincidence? Or a goalie that thrives in that setting? “

  • Max Powers - Team HME Evans

    What’s with the compaints about fist posts? Don’t like it, don’t read it!

    As lame as R.A.’s fist was, it was still a fist (double fister for that matter) and I’m all for fists.

    Good fistin’ R.A., don’t let the haters keep you down!

  • Romulus' Apotheosis

    Any thought on why Dubs is in net tonight?

    Presumably Khabbie starts tomorrow. Is Renney signalling that Khabbie needs more than one days rest, or that he expects Detroit to be a tougher contest… both, or neither?

    • Jerk Store

      Maybe Detroit is a more “winnable” game. Not saying he is throwing Dubie to the wolves, but Boston is big and plays tough, which is not necessarily our forte. Not saying Detroit is a push over – far from it – but Boston is NOT a good matchup.

    • book¡e

      Detroit is easier – Boston has scored something like 15 goals in the past two games. This is throwing Dubby to the wolves and letting Khabi face the soft parade in the hopes of winning at least one of the two.

    • Quicksilver ballet

      It is clear that Khabibulin should start in goal. If the goal is two points, why start the guy who isn’t as good as the All World Nikolia Khabibulin?

      Dubnyk is clearly second place in that dragrace.

    • Romulus' Apotheosis

      But it’s clear that Dubs will play in one of these games (as you rightly note). The question is which one and why?

      The arguments for playing him tonight seem to be: save Khabbie an extra rest day; save Khabbie the weaker opponent/raising our chances of winning at least one game (one in the hand vs. two in the bush) (h/t book!e and Jerk)

      The arguments for playing Khabbie tonight seem to be: go with your best chance at winning (go for both games as hard as possible); Dubs is better suited to defend against Det.(h/t talbot)

      For me, the difference is negligible. I’m not convinced one option is clearly better than the other. I am just trying to see if there are more forceful arguments than these.

    • justDOit

      Maybe to keep Lucic and the other bangers off of Khabby?

      DD is bigger, better suited to traffic in front, and let’s all remember – his save % is pretty high right now too!

      It was clear in Phoenix that DD needs more net time, and let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that this team’s plan has switched from ‘shaping the younguns into hockey players’, to ‘winning the cup.’ Development is still a high priority, and that goes for DD too!

      GO DOOBIE!!!!!

  • Clyde Frog

    Is it just the curse of the 4 year contract in Edmonton? Penner also “got it” after 2 years, maybe we just need to set contract term caps at 2 years, lol…