Should the Edmonton Oilers consider keeping Nikolai Khabibulin?

Jonathan Willis
May 08 2013 12:44PM

Oilers’ backup Nikolai Khabibulin is an unrestricted free agent this summer. Does it make sense for the team to keep him around rather than shopping elsewhere?

Four years ago, the Oilers signed Nikolai Khabibulin as a free agent. Over his previous four years in Chicago, Khabibulin had a mix of performance and health problems, but he redeemed himself somewhat with a tremendous contract year. History seems to have repeated itself. Over four seasons in Edmonton, Khabibulin has had a mix of performance and health problems, but once again has come through at the end of his contract with a 0.923 save percentage over 12 games. Just as it didn’t in 2009, that late surge doesn’t make Khabibulin a good fit for the team.

Injury

Khabibulin was well-established as one of the most injury prone starting goalies in the NHL when the Oilers signed him. From 2006-06 to 2008-09, Khabibulin missed 66 games (an average of 17 per season) to a variety of maladies, with most of them being back and lower body injuries. That total ranked him fourth among NHL starters in time missed to injury; ahead of him were Pascal Leclaire (since retired), Rick DiPietro (the Islanders only wish he was retired) and Kari Lehtonen (he’s been remarkably healthy since).

In the four years since, injuries have been a frequent problem for Khabibulin. Via TSN, here’s the list of games missed to injury:

  • 2009-10: Missed 60 games (back injury)
  • 2010-11: Missed six games (groin injury)
  • 2010-11: Missed four games (eye injury)
  • 2011-12: Missed five games (groin injury)
  • 2012-13: Missed five games (hip injury)
  • 2012-13: Missed eight games (groin injury)
  • Total: 88 games lost to injury, average of 22 per season

For just under one in three games the Oilers have played since signing Khabibulin, the veteran goaltender has been on injured reserve. If not for the lockout, that total would have been inflated, as Khabibulin was on injured reserve to start the 2013 season.

Khabibulin is now 40 years old. Injury was a concern when the Oilers signed an oft-injured 36-year old; it’s more of a concern four years later.

Performance

Khabibulin was coming off a difficult four-year stint in Chicago when the Oilers signed him. He had won the Stanley cup with Tampa Bay just before the lockout, and the Blackhawks paid big money for him to solve their goaltending problems. Instead, he was terrible in 2005-06, moderately better in 2006-07, decent in 2007-08 and quite good in 2008-09. Overall, he posted a 0.904 save percentage over that span – a total that ranked 27th among goalies with a minimum of 100 starts in that period.

Khabibulin’s performance in Edmonton has been similar. He was pretty good in an 18-game first season before injury knocked him out of the lineup, but was then terrible the following year. A hot start in 2011-12 combined with a brutal finish propelled him to average-ish overall numbers, and then in a short stint this season Khabibulin was excellent. Overall, he posted a 0.903 save percentage over four years in Edmonton – almost the same total as he managed in Chicago, except that NHL goaltending has improved. Among goalies with a minimum of 100 games played over those four years, Khabibulin’s 0.903 save percentage ranks 39th of 42 players.

NHL goalies are getting better. At 40, Khabibulin is not.

Bottom Line

Khabibulin is a terrible fit for the Oilers. Ideally, the Oilers need a backup they can count on to play (Khabibulin can’t be, due to injury), play well (Khabibulin has not consistently done so) and ideally someone who can continue to push starter Devan Dubnyk or take over for a stretch if he falters or gets hurt (something Khabibulin simply isn’t capable of doing at this stage of his career).

When it comes to addressing the number two goaltending slot in Edmonton, Nikolai Khabibulin shouldn’t be in the conversation.

STREAKCRED

Sign up for StreakCred - the new playoff pool game from the Nation Network. For only $20 you can win solid prizes and a portion of the proceeds go to supporting the MS Bike Tour and the Edmonton Down Syndrome Society. Sign up here.

Recently around the Nation Network

74b7cedc5d8bfbe88cf071309e98d2c3
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.