As it currently stands, the Oilers are giving up one-quarter of a goal less per game than they were last year. True, that doesn’t sound like much, but in a league where making or missing the playoffs can often come down to a single point in the standings, it’s not something you’re willing to give away, either.
The signing of 36-year-old goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin to a four-year contract in the summer was certainly met with some raised eyebrows around the hockey world: After all, why sign an aging netminder to a long-term contract when you already have an aging netminder (Dwayne Roloson) willing to stay in town for a shorter term?
Early results bear out precisely why GM Steve Tambellini made the choice he did. Khabibulin is a Stanley Cup winner from his days in Tampa and the backbone in net from last year’s surprising Western Conference finalist squad from Chicago. The fact the Blackhawks folded against the Red Wings once a lower body injury felled the ‘Bulin Wall’ only added to his cred.
The fact Chicago management played itself into a salary cap corner with current starter Cristobal Huet (and how’s that working out so far?) only deepens the mistake made by the Hawks in letting Khabibulin walk this summer.
Much of the worry in the Khabibulin signing came from the fact his worst NHL season was his first with the Hawks. Would he similarly need to get accustomed to Edmonton before soaring? Well, there were mitigating factors back in 2005-06. As in, there was no NHL season the year prior, thanks to the lockout. Khabibulin played in Russia, but obviously the season away from the NHL affected him poorly.
Now, he looks to be in fine form, Monday’s thrilling 2-1 win over Vancouver the latest entry. Sure, Khabby may not be the Oilers’ starting goalie by the end of his contract (one would hope Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers or even Olivier Roy would wrest the title away by then), but he will be the goaltender when Edmonton finally marches back into the playoffs.
Based on early returns this season, it could happen sooner than most in the hockey world predicted.
This column also appears in the Edmonton Metro newspaper.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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