Is Devan Dubnyk safe as the Oilers starting goalie?

On February 16, Devan Dubnyk was pulled in a game against Colorado after allowing three goals on nine shots. Nikolai Khabibulin replaced him and earned a win, stopping 16 of the 17 shots he faced. Since that game, Dubnyk has started just one contest, while Khabibulin has started three.

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Is Dubnyk secure in the starting role, or could Khabibulin be stealing his job?

Khabibulin’s strong start

It looks right now like head coach Ralph Krueger’s going with a ‘win and you’re in’ approach, though we’re dealing with a small enough sample that this may not be the case. Khabibulin won against Colorado, and was rewarded with a start against L.A.; he lost that game so Dubnyk came in and lost to Minnesota; Khabibulin came back, beat Phoenix, and then got the start against Chicago.

The Chicago start was probably Khabibulin’s weakest of the year, and he was still quite good – Krueger said he played an excellent game in his post-game presser. All of his games have been good, as a quick look at his season statistics shows:

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2011-12 Redux?

If this seems familiar, that’s likely because last season something very similar happened. Khabibulin collapsed down the stretch in 2010-11, and Dubnyk appeared to supplant him as the Oilers starting goaltender. Dubnyk earned the first start of the season, but was given very little rope in the starting role – Khabibulin excelled early, and then-coach Tom Renney turned the job over to him. Renney clearly entered the season with the idea of giving both goalies a shot, and Khabibulin was too good not to play.

From that October 20 win through Christmas, Khabibulin would start 19 games to Dubnyk’s nine, and his play warranted it. The problem was that Renney continued to give Khabibulin starts long after his play had slipped – Dubnyk won the starting job after Christmas and made 30 of the team’s final 48 starts – but Khabibulin still started 18 contests. The Oilers went 1-13-4 in Khabibulin’s starts; 16-11-3 in Dubnyk’s.

The difficulty was knowing when the music would stop for Khabibulin; his start was too good to be true and out of keeping with his post-lockout work. It’s the same problem Ralph Krueger will face if he continues to give Khabibulin starts – we know with relative certainty that Dubnyk is the superior goaltender to Khabibulin, so while riding the hot hand is fine to a point it’s playing with fire if it goes too far.

If Khabibulin had started five games rather than 18 after Christmas last season, and the Oilers kept up their average point percentage with Dubnyk over those 13 additional starts, it would have meant an additional 11 points for Edmonton. Ultimately, that would have worked against the team (no Yakupov, 12th in the West instead of 14th), but it would have put them 10 points out of the playoffs instead of 21. I don’t think it’s crazy to suggest that keeping Khabibulin in the regular rotation probably cost Tom Renney his job.

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Is Khabibulin Just A Hot Starter?

This marks the second season in a row that Khabibulin’s gotten off to a good start in net – is it possible that he is a legitimately good goalie, but that age and injury catch up to him as the season carries on? It’s a nice idea, because it suggests that Khabibulin still has some utility as a strong backup option as long as he isn’t overused by the coach.

Unfortunately, that seems likely not to be the case. In 2005-06, Khabibulin got lit up like a Christmas tree in October (3-7-0, 0.851 SV%) before settling down a little the rest of the way. In 2006-07, his October save percentage was 0.890. In 2007-08, it was 0.892. In 2008-09, it was 0.918 – this was his best post-lockout season, the year he finished with a 0.919 save percentage and convinced the Oilers he was worth a four-year contract. Moving to Edmonton, he got hurt early in 2009-10, and then in 2010-11 posted a 0.901 SV% in October and a 0.847 SV% in November.

In short: it just so happens that his hot streaks have coincided with the beginning of the season the last two years – it would be a mistake to believe that this makes Khabibulin viable as long as his playing time is kept low.

What I Would Do

It’s great that Khabibulin has played so well for the Oilers, but everything he’s done since the 2004-05 lockout suggests that it’s going to stop, it’s going to stop soon, and when it stops he’s going to be bad. As Tyler Dellow points out in that linked piece above, Khabibulin has a 0.905 save percentage since turning 30, and we can probably expect him to be worse than his career average going forward given his age.

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With that in mind, I’d play him in back-to-backs and otherwise keep him on the bench. Dubnyk is the much better option, the guy that is more likely to give the team a chance to win every night, and he should be started accordingly. One of the nice side effects of this decision is that it virtually guarantees Khabibulin won’t have a chance to see his save percentage drop – and at the deadline, given that he’s a Cup-winner, by all accounts a good, veteran, professional, and in the final year of his contract maybe, just maybe, he’ll be worth a draft pick from another team.

I certainly wouldn’t give him a chance to do to me what he did to the 2011-12 Oilers, and to Tom Renney.

To answer the title question: if Devan Dubnyk isn’t safe as the Oilers’ starter, somebody isn’t paying attention to recent history.

Recently by Jonathan Willis

  • PlayDirty

    I also agree. The Bulin Wall is looking pretty decent though lately but if you’re a disciplined coach you’ve got to see the logic that presented itself last year. Man the game against Chicago was ragged. Smid and Petry looked terrible. I just don’t see Smid making any decent breakout passes. He’s become the classic chip it out of there defenseman. He’s hardly a supreme shutdown D. We need to upgrade our D bigtime.

      • So you run Roy and Bunz in OKC and DD and Danis in Etown for their respective playoff run(hypothetical) or are you looking at aquiring another G?? And if so what would we really be gaining in that situation with a 6th round pick?

        • I’d be more comfortable with that if Danis were having a better season, but worst case scenario (assuming the Oilers are out of it) I’m fine with that. Otherwise, we’ve seen a lot of pretty decent goalies on the waiver wire.

          Basically, the assumption here is that Khabibulin’s likely to post a 0.905 SV% or lower the rest of the way, which means he’s replaceable by a competent AHL goalie.

      • Our issues are numerous and obvious, but our goalkeeping this year has been really good (minus the first SJ game). Whether Khabi can keep it up is irrelevant at this point. He is playing well and helping the team get points. The organization has known for years that he isn’t the answer going forward – what has changed this month? Nothing. So why make a decision on him now when he is actually playing well and giving us a legitimate option in net? Suggesting we trade Khabi now is low hanging fruit. He is the least of our problems at the moment and won’t bring much in return. Trade deadline.

  • Romanus

    At this point of a rebuild, you have to think of playoff runs like a rowing race. If you push too soon, you’ll lead for a bit, yet will have little chance of winning the race.

    If Oilers somehow get close to playoffs this year (which they will not), the team should make zero moves that only have a short term impact.

    This team needs to look to build up towards 2 years from now and going forward. This means no more short term fixes like wasting a 3rd rounder on Fistric, or acquiring assets that are not tradeable before they become UFAs. Now is the time to stock up on draft picks, and as many prospects as possible, so when the time comes to make a legitimate cup run, we will have many tradeable assets to pick up any short term (or potentially long term) help that is required.

    • PlayDirty

      This is the loser attitude we need to finally break away from! We need to win games before these guys give up! The longer we suck the harder it’s going to be to get a winning attitude! We need to do whatever we can to start winning now

  • MattyFranchise

    Honestly, trade one of the fab four for an actual defense man. Yak is an unknown, Hall drives the play like nobody else on the team so it’s time to let go of Eberle or the Nuge. Dub may or may not be a starter but Emery and Crawford aren’t starters either.

    There are very few goalies that win games for teams but a lot that lose games for teams. This team needs defense.

    Also, to address a comment made earlier, there is a remarkable amount of parity in the WC aside from ANA and CHG… it’s not laughable that the Oil may be in the mix come trade deadline time.

    • A-Mc

      This post has merit.

      My personal Opinion is that Emery was really shaky last night, and if the Oilers were given some breathing room, They would have lit him up like a Christmas tree.

      The success of Emery in last nights game came from the 5 Chicago skaters on the ice IMO.

      I’m not sure who goes in a trade, but i do think we need 1 more solid defenseman and 1 big top 6 forward.

      My list of names that are trait bait:

      Nuge (Maybe)
      Gagner (Maybe. I may look at moving Nuge before Gagner)


      This years 2nd round pick.
      Next years 1st round pick.

      • Ducey

        Is that you Mr Milbury?

        Anyone suggesting we trade one of Hall, Nuge, or Eberle is on crack.

        Those 3 players play the best lines on other teams and beat them in Rel Corsi (they outshoot them) every night. And they are all still on their ELC’s!

        Compare that to teams like Vancouver who line match to keep the Sedins away from tough minutes.

        Can you imagine how awesome Nuge is going to be when he is 25? You are going to give that away so you can do a little better this year?

        Give your head a shake.

        • A-Mc

          I get what you’re saying. I do.

          But If the organization determines they need a big top 6 centerman, then he naturally pushes out Nuge or Gagner.

          It’s logical to think that Gagner or Nuge would be going in the other direction as partial payment. Big Top 6 Centermen are really tough to get, and if you want one – you’re not going to get it with Petry + Omark + 2nd round pick.

          I had a Maybe next to Nuge’s name because there is only very specific deals that would make sense to me to move him.

          FOR EXAMPLE. This is totally made up and would NEVER fly, but what if this deal could be made: Petry + Nuge for Malkin. Would you do it? I’d look at it.

          My point is that if you want something good, you’re going to have to do something that stings a little, and IMO the only sting I’m willing to suffer with regards to the new guys is a loss of Nuge as part of a deal to bring us a #1 Centerman.

          IDEALLY: We’d move Hemsky + Prospect for a big top 6 Talent (Likely winger) and we’d keep Nuge and Gagner.

        • A-Mc

          It wasnt in order of importance. It was just how i think of the team: Top line down.

          Read my explanation above to help clarify for yourself. I dont think we SHOULD trade nuge. I’m just saying that if he is requested by the other team to be part of a package to bring you a big topline centerman, I would look at it as a Maybe.

          PS: yes i watch the games. i PVR every single one and watch it 2-3 times

          • Spydyr

            If you trade assets that may help you in 3 years you better be getting something back that will help you then. Now is not the time to trade draft picks as you stated. Now in 3 years when the team should be contending you might trade draft picks to fill some holes or put you over the top.Until then build for the future.The future is not this year.Why give away something that may help you to win a Cup to get 8th spot and a first round ass kicking.

          • A-Mc


            What the Oilers are looking for doesn’t come around each year in the off season or at Trade Deadline. If given the opportunity to bring something HUGE into your organization, You have to look at it today, even though the ideal timing might be 2 years from now.

            But i agree with you on one thing. There is no sense bringing in a piece today that will likely expire in the 2-4 years it’s going to take for the rest of your team to catch up.

            In my totally bogus example trade that would never happen, i suggested i would definitely look at a: Petry + Nuge for Evegni Malkin.

            That’s a trade i would do today as Malkin is only 26. He would help today and he would help in 2-4 years from now.

            My Personal Opinion is that the Oilers are very close to tipping the balance in their favor. I think they’ll be in the playoffs in the next year or two. but i do think that success will come with atleast 1 Acquisition of either a bigger top 6 forward (likely winger because they are cheaper) and/or a solid D to replace what Ryan Whitney was supposed to be. 1 Piece + another year experience, and i think we could see the playoffs.