Jay Grossman talks about the Khabibulin contract

Jonathan Willis
June 29 2012 08:53AM

There’s a piece on the Oilers’ official website today featuring a discussion with player agent Jay Grossman. Grossman talks about the Oilers as a free agent destination, and also about the circumstances surrounding the original signing of Nikolai Khabibulin. He has some interesting things to say.

Honestly, I was a little surprised that this discussion went up at the Oilers’ official website, since it doesn’t take a lot of reading between the lines to see how bad the Oilers’ decision was at the time.

Take this comment, for example:

I didn't know which teams would or wouldn't be looking for a goaltender. I thought there might be three or four teams max that would have interest. I went through every one of them with him, which included the Islanders, Oilers and a couple others.

The market for goaltenders was all but non-existent at exactly the same time as Khabibulin hit free agency. This was well-known at the time and players like Martin Biron were ultimately forced to take backup jobs just to stay in the league. Grossman captures the feeling well:

[I]t's like musical chairs. You don't want to be the odd one out. If someone signs within 15 minutes and you see them as a comparable -- and Roloson was -- it gives you a good measuring stick in terms of what the market is like. The movement was as quick as we'd expected.

Dwayne Roloson – quite rightly, given that his statistics on the whole post-lockout were superior to Khabibulin’s in the summer of 2009 – was viewed as a comparable. What was his contract worth? $5 million over two seasons.

That contract was already done when the Oilers made a four-year, $15 million offer to Khabibulin.

Grossman’s comments just reaffirm what was obvious at the time: that the Oilers were out of touch with the marketplace, and consequently made a very generous offer that was entirely out of keeping with the realities of the goalie market that year.

I talk about this contract a fair bit for a few reasons. The first, obvious, reason is that Khabibulin is still under contract to the Oilers; they’re entering the fourth year of his four-year deal and Steve Tambellini is as committed to him as ever.

The less obvious but more important reason is that contracts reveal truths about the people who sign them.

The Khabibulin contract revealed that the Oilers didn’t understand the market. Whether that was simply due to a failure of research or simple inability to comprehend the results of that research, it’s unforgiveable for a team that plans to sign a starting goalie. It showed other things, too – a poor grasp of goaltender ability, a failure to mitigate risk (a long-term deal to an injury-prone, 35+ goalie, no established backup) and a focus on things other than hockey ability.

The people who made the decision are still in place. Have they learned from it?

In at least one way, I’d say the answer is yes. Since the disastrous 2009-10 season, the Oilers have always had goaltender depth. Martin Gerber and Yann Danis are high-end third-string goalies; clearly, the Oilers have decided that having some redundancy in the system is important. They’ve spent money and found quality people to ensure they aren’t caught with a pair of rookie backups in net again.

As for the other problems with the contract, the jury is still out on whether the Oilers’ approach has changed. The fact is that Edmonton hasn’t done a lot in free agency the last couple of seasons, in line with the slow rebuild approach. The hope is that they’ve learned to gauge the market correctly, and that they’re less fixated on Cup rings and big names then they are on the actual level of ability each player displays.

Until they start targeting impact free agents, however, we won’t know if that hope reflects reality.

This week by Jonathan Willis

Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including the Edmonton Journal, Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.