What do you think the odds of Nikolai Khabibulin becoming Chicago’s No. 1 goaltender were in September? 4-to-1? 5-to-1?
Remember, Khabibulin had injury problems and was generally unimpressive in recent seasons. And the Hawks sent a shot across his bow by signing Cristobal Huet to a four-year, $22.5-million contract over the summer. In fact, some went so far as to say the signing had effectively sunk Khabibulin’s battleship.
Most everyone agreed; the Huet signing spelled the end for Khabibulin in Chicago. Whether by hook or by crook, The ‘Bulin Wall’ and his $6.75-million contract would be blown right out of the Windy City. There were even rumors of him being sent to the Kontinental League.
But Khabibulin is still in Chicago – and thriving – for a couple of reasons. First of all, he is expensive, meaning most of the teams pundits assumed were interested – Colorado, Ottawa and Los Angeles – begged off.
Turns out L.A. is willing to be bad so that when it gets good, it gets real good. And they have more young goalies in their system than you can shake a stick at. The other two may be interested at some point if they’re in the playoff hunt, but are willing to wait and take on a much more cap-friendly, pro-rated salary number closer to the end of the season.
Then, of course, there’s the fact Khabibulin has simply outplayed his French partner. In 12 games, Khabibulin is 7-1-4 with a 2.51 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage. Huet, meanwhile, has played seven games and is 3-3-1 with a 2.95 goals-against average and a .900 save percentage.
For a young Hawks team somewhat prone to defensive gaffes, but fighting for playoff seeding in the tough Western Conference, half a goal per game means a lot. And besides, at the very least Khabibulin is doing a nice job showcasing himself to teams around the league. Chances are there will be a number of suitors as the season progresses – Washington could use him right now.
From the high of being a Stanley Cup champion in 2004 to the low of being second-guessed from Season 1 in Chicago and nearly being usurped by Patrick Lalime the past two years, Khabibulin has come full circle.
Not to say he won’t get hurt again or lose his job to Huet, but if you had put some money down on the ‘Bulin Wall’ becoming his team’s No. 1 again this season, you’d have been in for a nice payoff.
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