Puck Daddy chats with Edmonton Oilers goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin

via Yahoo’s Puck Daddy

Has there been a more surprising resurgence in the NHL this season than that of Nikolai Khabibulin(notes)?

Last year saw the Edmonton Oilers goaltender playing in the shadow of his DUI charges from Feb. 2010, for which he’d eventually spend 15 days in an Arizona detention facility. He played 47 games for the Oilers in 2010-11, going 10-32-4 with an .890 save percentage in an injury-plagued year.

Before this season, it appeared the 38-year-old goalie’s status as a No. 1 goaltender was at an end, with 25-year-old former first-rounder Devan Dubnyk(notes) ready to take over. But The Bulin Wall has been sturdy in the opening month of the 2011-12 season: He’s 4-0-2 with a great 0.97 goals against average and a .965 save percentage, leading the NHL in both numbers after Thursday night’s win over the Washington Capitals.

“Going into the season I don’t think we had a clear distinction who the No. 1 goaltender would be and who the No. 2 would be,” Khabibulin told Puck Daddy this week, prior to the Capitals game. “We both knew there would be enough chances to play. I thought that whoever plays best and the team keeps winning, that goaltender would be the starter. The coaches would play whoever is winning. I think this system will continue throughout the season.”

Coming up, Nikolai Khabibulin on the Oilers’ young stars, including Ryan Nugent-Hopkins(notes); Edmonton as a desirable place to play; the future of the Phoenix Coyotes; the return of the Winnipeg Jets; old goalies like Tim Thomas(notes); and whether the NHL protects its netminders.

Q. You were a starter for a very long time. Did it feel strange that you would have to prove yourself a lot again?

KHABIBULIN: I think as a goaltender, as a player, you always have to prove yourself. And of course in this situation it was a little bit difficult because Dubnyk is a pretty good goaltender and he will only get better. But at the same time I am not trying to prove anything to anyone, I am just trying to play my game, show my game and enjoy it. I am trying to play my best game every time and if it turns out great, then it’s good. If not, then at least I know that I gave it all I had.

The Oilers has to be one of the youngest teams in the League. What is it like for an older player to be amongst so many young players? Is it difficult to find something in common with them?

The age difference is not a big deal at all.

Also this offseason we added more veterans like Ryan Smyth(notes), Andy Sutton(notes), Eric Belanger(notes). But yes, we didn’t have that many veterans last year. It was like a kindergarten in a good way [laughing]. But this year there are more of us, older guys, but it’s always easy to find something in common with the younger players. I think they look up to us more but we are all learning from each other.

At the same time when you have so many young players on your team, you just feel rejuvenated, you feel a lot of energy by playing with them. We try to help them as much as we can, and they are helping us whether they know it or not.

Is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins for real? A lot of Canadian media paint him as the next Messiah.

I think he is still getting used to the NHL and there will be more things he will have to get used to. It is very difficult to play in the NHL as a 18 or 19 year old. Of course, if he has a consistent season it will only be great. But I think it is difficult to count on that.

What he has shown in the few games that he has played, and a lot of players who are drafted high usually are very, very good, he surprised me a lot, and he is still surprising me, speaking as a defensive player being a goaltender, he is so good in the defensive zone and playing defense. You can really rely on him in the defensive zone, whereas usually young forwards need to learn how to play in their own zone. He pays a lot of attention to his defensive game, and it is great.

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