The Oilers blogosphere (sorry, I’ve grown to hate the sound of the portmanteau) has spent a lot of energy this summer wailing and gnashing teeth over every aspect of Nikolai Khabibulin’s signing — the age, the stats, the term, the dollars, and the seeming disinterest in alternatives. I can’t quibble entirely with the last three: I’d have liked the signing more if it’d been for a year fewer and about a half-million less, and unless we’re talking an elite-level player, I, like Dany Heatley, prefer options, if for no other reason than the fact that it’s good negotiating practice. I’m unmoved, however, by the arguments that Khabi is too old or no longer capable of cutting it.
First, let’s consider the age argument. It would seem that the primary concern here is that Khabibulin should be primed to fall off a cliff any year now because previous generations of player did, which is awfully nice to know but really quite irrelevant, especially considering the fact that this team just got a near-career year out of a 39-year-old ‘keeper. The fact of the matter is, players understand and implement nutritional and training principles better now than they have at any point in the League’s history, and are in better overall physical condition than at any point since the game’s very earliest days, when multi-sport professional athletes playing hockey in the winter and lacrosse or rugby in the summer were common. Put more succinctly, I believe that 40 is the new 35, and that we will continue to see more players put up serviceable numbers well into their late 30s. (As an example, Brendan Shanahan put up nineteen consecutive 20-goal seasons, his most recent at age 39, and scored 40 goals as recently as age 37. Until this most recent half-season, he’d been averaging over 18 minutes per night for as far back as Hockey Reference has numbers, about ten years.) I don’t think it’s valid to presume that players today will follow the same progression curve that their forebears did, because they operate fundamentally differently, showing up to camp in elite physical condition instead of playing their way into it. We’re still several years away from having a sufficient amount of data to predict when the modern NHLer takes that irrevocable nosedive into athletic senescence, but as it stands right now, I would postulate that playing a 36-year-old goaltender for a significant number of games (i.e. more than 50) should not present a real problem, so long as he’s stayed in shape to this point.
The other argument revolves around his mediocre-to-bad save percentages while a member of the 2005-08 Chicago Blackhawks. Above is a table showing Khabibulin’s points percentage, save percentage, and goals-against average as compared to the team average for his entire career, with the Chicago numbers blocked off separately. (Ironic aside: one of his worst regular-season performances, at least relative to his backup, came in his Stanley Cup-winning season of 2003-04.) In 2005-06, I don’t think anyone would deny that he was at best not helping matters, and at worst a big part of the problem, but at least in terms of save percentage and goals-against average, he outperformed the team average (that is to say, he was better than his backup) in all three years. At the very least, this tells me that Khabibulin was far and away the best option on the team for all three of those years. Could there have been better goalies on that team? Sure, probably. However, I would suggest that the raw numbers, which have been cited repeatedly as a problem, would be influenced by the quality of the team. I know, the accepted wisdom of the Edmonton Eulers is that individual players don’t have a significant impact on a goalie’s save percentage, and that may be so, but I would counter by saying that we understand, and even expect, that a goalie is going to have a sub-.900 SV% on the penalty-kill. You’re down a man, defensive coverage is stretched to the limit, and breakdowns will inevitably result in high-percentage chances and goals. Would it not be logical, then, to extend the same consideration to bad hockey teams? That’s not to say that we should forgive that abysmal .886 in 2005-06, of course, nor is it to say that universally, better teams will have better goalie numbers (see: the 2005-06 Oilers), but that all other things being equal, the same goaltender will probably put up worse numbers on a worse team. It’s no surprise to me that Khabi’s SV% increased in each of the next three seasons, because the team itself got better each year. The larger change from 2007-08 to 2008-09 (.909 to .919) could also be due in part to the fact that Joel Quenneville was a bit more concerned about defensive responsibility than his predecessor, Denis Savard, in addition to the overall improvement in the play of the team. You can argue that there were better options out there that should have at least been considered — leaving aside the usual caveat that no one wants to play in Edmonton anyway — but that doesn’t necessarily mean the option that the Oilers ultimately went with was a poor one.
When I started this article, I hadn’t planned on it turning in to the Nikolai Khabibulin Show, because to be honest, the real question marks for me are behind him. Let’s start with Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers, the designated backup for this season. To be blunt, I don’t have much faith in him; never mind the statistics, he looked shaky in his first-star turn at Madison Square Garden last November, when he withstood a siege in the final forty to squeak out a 3-2 shootout win, and he’s only looked worse from there. I can see that he’s trying to play something of a hybrid style, more akin to that of Martin Brodeur than most other modern goalies, but let’s be honest: JDD is no Marty. Aside from relative talent level, of course, part of the problem is the fact that Deslauriers spent much of his early pro career being jerked around by the Oilers. They pulled the plug on their own minor-league team after his rookie year, and shared affiliation with others for a couple of seasons, forcing him to play behind other teams’ prospects — an even greater problem for goaltenders than skaters. They finally got him a minor-league team he could start for in 2007-08, but then made him spend most of last season in the press box, because three-goalie rotations are traditionally the mark of a successful hockey club. Whatever abilities he had have been at least somewhat squandered and suffocated by the terrible arrangements the Oilers made over the last few years, to the point where I think his ceiling is now much lower than it was when they drafted him seven years ago. He just didn’t get enough net time as a young man to build up both the skills and the confidence to take the next step, and confidence is an important thing for a goaltender more so than any other position, certainly based on my own limited experiences in net. Maybe a new goalie coach and a greater opportunity with the NHL club will help him to some degree, but at this point, he’s a career backup, and I wonder even then if he’ll be able to hold off future prospects as they mature into NHL-ready goalkeepers.
The prospect he should be worried about now is Devan Dubnyk. No, a .906 SV% in the AHL isn’t entirely confidence-inspiring, but as I noted with Khabibulin, I don’t think SV% is a number that can be considered entirely without context. The 2008-09 Springfield Falcons were, in a word, fucking awful. In fact, they had the worst record in the AHL last season at 24-44-12 with a -70 GD. I’ve already mentioned Rob Schremp as one person who had a bad year on that bad team, but I think Dubnyk is, frankly, much more likely to rebound into an NHL player at this stage of his career. Certainly, a sub-.910 SV% is kind of to be expected given the number of injuries and ECHLers inflicted on that team. There’s no guarantees, of course, but I have a lot more faith in him without even seeing him than I do in Deslauriers. As for judging his play personally, well, I’ve never seen the kid play, or if I have, it was at a pre-season game several years ago, of which I no longer have any recollection. My thinking is that for 2009-10, Dubnyk should focus on being The Guy in Springfield and putting up good numbers, so that he comes into camp in 2010-11 ready to wrestle the backup job from Deslauriers. While I think he’s probably the better goaltender, certainly in the long term, I can’t imagine he’s ready for the NHL job this year. I have to hope that he will be soon, though; as unconcerned as I was about Khabibulin’s age now, when his final year rolls around, there has to be a succession plan in place, and frankly, I’d rather he be succeeded by the kid that was developed properly in the minors than the kid that wasn’t.