How much Khabibulin?

Jonathan Willis
March 21 2013 04:39PM

Head coach Ralph Krueger revealed last night that Nikolai Khabibulin is nearly back at 100 percent, making the veteran goaltender an option to get starts in net. How much should the Oilers use Khabibulin?

This is what Krueger said in response to a question asking whether Khabibulin was an option to start Saturday against the St. Louis Blues:

We’re going to re-evaluate the lineup after every game and we’ll take a look at it. For us, we feel that Nikolai is now very close to 100%. We already had him in the lineup where he wasn’t quite there… and Nik, we’ll need him. If you look at the games that are left we have got 18 in 33 and we’re going to need everybody here.

In short, for the first time since Khabibulin was injured, the coach has another legitimate option in net. And given the schedule, it’s an option he’s going to use.

To answer the question in the title, two things need to be established:

  • What is the difference in performance between Khabibulin and Dubnyk?
  • If there is a significant gap, how often can the Oilers get away with using the better of the two?

Which is Better?

Looking at just this season, the advantage would seem to be in Khabibulin’s favour – in five games he has a 0.935 save percentage, to Dubnyk’s 0.918 save percentage over 25 games. But goalies are fickle; their performance goes up and down, and it’s important to look at long-term track record when evaluating them.

Since the 2004-05 lockout, Khabibulin has been a 0.903 save percentage goalie; Dubnyk is a career 0.912 save percentage goalie. Additionally, Khabibulin has gotten older; Dubnyk’s save percentage includes a chunk from 2010-11 which is well below everything he’s done since that point. Reflecting on that gap, Tyler Dellow wrote this back in February:

I can’t say that Dubnyk would have stopped the Kings winning goal on Tuesday night or that he wouldn’t have let in some other goal. It’s unknowable. The flipside of this is that nobody can say that Dubnyk wouldn’t. Personally, I thought it was a bit of a stinky goal – yes, it was tipped, but Khabibulin had holes open that made him vulnerable – but the extra one goal per hundred that Khabby lets in isn’t going to necessarily look bad. What I do know is that, like clockwork, Khabibulin will let in that extra goal every 100 shots. In fact, over the last three years, it’s been an extra 1.5 goals per 100 shots. In a league like the NHL, where most goals are Big Goals (h/t Matt Fenwick) because most games are close games, odds are that it’s going to cost you at some point and, if you play him more than is absolutely necessary, you’re just piling on the risk. The Oilers made the lower percentage bet and then they lost the game.

I don’t like using wins and losses to judge goaltenders as a rule, but when they play on the same team and the sample is long enough, they can illustrate a point. Both Khabibulin and Dubnyk have played more than 100 games for the Oilers; with Khabibulin the team is 31-63-14 while with Dubnyk they’re 44-52-19. Dubnyk’s the superior option, and it isn’t close.

How often should a team use their backup?

Dellow did some digging on this front, too. The whole post is here, but basically what he found is that over a stretch of 48 games where there’s a clear cut difference between number one and the backup, number one picked up 39-40 starts while the backup started eight or nine games, with more than half of those coming in back-to-back situations.

With 19 games left, that works out to 15-16 starts for Dubnyk and three to four for Khabibulin. The following is the Oilers’ remaining schedule, with back-to-back games in bold:

“Competitor” refers to games where the other team is a clear threat to an Oilers’ post-season berth. There aren’t a lot of those games left, and none of them are against Detroit and San Jose – the two teams most likely to be bumped out of their current spot.

Barring something we don’t know about – a nagging injury to Dubnyk, trade interest in Khabibulin, a sudden decision to tank, etc. – it makes sense to me to start Khabibulin Mar. 26 vs. St Louis, Apr. 4 vs. Vancouver, Apr. 21 vs. Anaheim and Apr. 27 vs. Vancouver. The plan should be for every other start, including all seven against teams that could theoretically vie with Edmonton for a post-season berth, should go to Dubnyk. The plan can change if the Oilers fall out of playoff contention, but otherwise that seems the most sensible approach.

And with three days between Wednesday night’s loss to San Jose and the Oilers’ Saturday game against St. Louis, Dubnyk should certainly get the start there too.

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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.