Via Tim Kavanagh – ESPN.com
Before the start of the 2011-12 season, Nikolai Khabibulin was left for dead by just about everyone in the fantasy hockey world. Based on what we’d seen during his trying 2010-11 season — on and off the ice — it appeared that the former star had nothing left in the tank and would be between the pipes only occasionally to give Devan Dubnyk a break. It appeared Dubnyk, 25, would be the man to grow with this impressive collection of young talent, with Khabibulin offering some pointers during practice and occupying the end spot on the bench during most games. After all, Khabibulin posted a 10-32-4 record in 46 starts in 2010-11, with a 3.40 goals-against average and .890 save percentage (SV%) while Dubnyk was 12-13-8 with a 2.71 and .916, respectively. As a result, the 38-year-old native of Sverdlovsk went largely undrafted in fantasy leagues.
But instead of fading quietly into the night, it’s been a renaissance season for the veteran so far. His 5-0-2 record, along with a GAA of 1.12 and SV% of .960 (both tops in the NHL), led to his third-place finish for the October player of the month award, and the Oilers are atop the Northwest Division standings after 11 games. So will the owners in 93.9 percent of ESPN fantasy hockey leagues continue to be rewarded for their quick waiver-wire trigger finger? Or will Khabibulin’s play fall off to last season’s levels, rendering him a burden on an active fantasy roster?
To gain a better understanding of why Khabibulin is putting up gaudy numbers, it’s helpful to examine his play this season from quantitative and qualitative standpoints. In comments to the Edmonton Journal recently, Khabibulin was quick to deflect some praise to the men playing in front of him. “Technically, I don’t think I’m doing anything different from last year, but we’re blocking a lot of shots. … We’ve got the leader in the league,” he said. He speaks of Ladislav Smid, whose 40 blocked shots remains the top mark in the NHL. As a team, the Oilers have blocked 184 shots (16.7 per game) this season, good for third overall. However, this is not far off the pace at which they blocked shots in 2010-11; the skaters prevented 1,219 shots from reaching the net during that campaign, which is 14.9 per game, a rate that was 10th in the league. The season before that, they were fourth, blocking 15.9 shots per game, while Khabibulin had a 3.03 GAA and .909 SV%. In other words, while the per-game rate is a little higher, it doesn’t appear that the number of blocked shots is the reason for the turnaround, since this has been a staple of the Oilers’ defensive game throughout Khabibulin’s tenure in Edmonton.
One of the more telling stats of any goalie is his performance on the penalty kill. So far this season, the Oilers have been short-handed 30 times with Khabibulin in the crease, and it wasn’t until the most recent penalty kill that the opposing team scored. In total, Khabibulin has stopped 26 of 27 shots while short-handed, good for a .963 situational SV%, which is actually better than his even-strength SV% of .958. Interestingly enough, Dubnyk’s even-strength SV% is a sliver higher (.959), while his short-handed SV% is .846. There’s something to be said for the confidence with which a PK unit plays in front of a hot goaltender, but given the disparity between Khabibulin’s mark and Dubnyk’s — as well as the fact that the veteran’s SH SV% over the two prior seasons was .815 and .846, respectively — this is an area where regression is expected as the season wears along. Then again, only about 20 percent of a goalie’s seasonal stat line will be generated on the penalty kill, so what about the rest of the time?
Here’s where the qualitative part comes in. As anyone who’s watched the “Bulin Wall” in action this season will tell you, it appears that he’s playing with the verve of his vintage self, as if he found the proverbial fountain of youth in the offseason. Moreover, as Ken Baker of NHL.com wrote recently, Khabibulin has been displaying excellent goaltending fundamentals, such as playing confidently at the front of his crease, moving well laterally and tracking the puck so that he positions himself properly. He’s also been a stalwart at controlling rebounds, and this ability is a huge confidence booster for the netminder himself and the defense in front of him. We know how vital an NHL goalie’s confidence is to his continued success.