The Edmonton Oilers have not had a good season. They are the worst team in the Western Conference. Young stars like Andrew Cogliano, Patrick O’Sullivan, Denis Grebeshkov and Tom Gilbert have failed to take the next step; indeed, they’ve regressed from their performance last year. Key veterans like Shawn Horcoff and Sheldon Souray have struggled. The team is plagued by injury. Pat Quinn sounds frustrated; he’s called his team “stupid” and has seemed to bite back curses in post-game press conferences. Despite Jordan Eberle’s spectacular effort in last night’s gold medal game, the immediate future isn’t much brighter: the Springfield Falcons didn’t win in December and are mired in the AHL cellar and the team has little cap space to bring in veterans.
Not all of this can be laid at the feet of Steve Tambellini, the Oilers’ G.M., many of the problems were inherited, although that doesn’t excuse his apparent inability to start fixing them. One particular bit of recent news is especially troubling, however: the news that Edmonton’s prize summer acquisition, Nikolai Khabibulin, is on the verge of being written off for the season. According to the local media, who got it from the coach, January 16 is the deadline for a decision on Khabibulin, who has yet to show any sign of returning to the team. If that continues, it’s probable the Oilers will opt to send him for surgery.
The really disturbing side of this particular story is evident in Robert Tychowski’s write-up:
Khabibulin, who turns 37 next week, has wrestled with back problems before.
“Apparently he went through this window in Chicago and came back at playoff time,” said Quinn. “That’s where we are, we’re still waiting.”
Khabibulin’s track record with regard to injury is not a positive one. Here’s what I wrote, a mere two weeks after the Oilers signed the goaltender to a four-year/$14 million contract:
Nikolai Khabibulin: 66 [games missed since the lockout] (back spasms, knee, groin, finger and multiple lower body injuries). The Oilers newly acquired number one goaltender, 36-year old Nikolai Khabibulin, has suffered repeated lower body injuries which have caused him to miss an average of 16-17 games per season. While this is serious, the greater concern is that given his age, history and the position he plays, he may be at a relatively high risk of suffering a long-term injury.
I was far from the harshest critic of the move; Tyler Dellow of mc79hockey wrote three great posts on the signing: “A Loser Move For A Loser Franchise,” “Loser Move, Part II” and “Relentless Incompetence”, which do a nice job explaining in detail the key reasons why signing Khabibulin to a four year contract was a big mistake. Ignoring the saturated goalie market this summer for a moment, as well as questions about Khabibulin’s ability to play at a high level given his track record in Chicago, one of the key points was that Khabibulin a) had a long history of injury problems, b) was over 35 (meaning that his contract sticks like crazy glue), and given a) and b) probably shouldn’t have been signed to a long-term, big-money contract (for those of you who would quibble about the long-term or big-money bit, see here, second-last paragraph).
This is about risk management. Had Steve Tambellini signed Khabibulin to a one-year contract, I couldn’t argue forcefully that he’d made a poor decision; it would have been a short-term bet on a player coming off a fine season. If Khabibulin’s performance wasn’t all that good, or a long-term injury issue popped up, come summer the Oilers would have been free and clear.
Tambellini didn’t sign Khabibulin to a one-year contract. He signed him to a four-year contract, despite the player’s age and injury history. It was a reckless move that showed an utter inability to effectively manage risks – and despite Tambellini’s rather short time at the helm, it wouldn’t bother me in the slightest if it turned out to be a move that led to his dismissal.