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I don’t often spend a lot of time thinking about the need for sports blogging, but I was reminded about it in a sharp way yesterday, as I reconsidered Edmonton-based coverage of the Nikolai Khabibulin signing.

The battle of media between more established, mainstream institutions and newer outlets such as the blogosphere has been a popular subject for many writers over the last half-decade.  The debate has crossed subject lines – in virtually every area that was previously the exclusive domain of established outlets, new media has established at least a beach head, and in some cases has arguably displaced the former as the resource of choice for the audience.  The impact on the media sector has been fascinating, and landscape-changing.  As one example, beat reporters blogging was a rarity five years ago; now it’s all but impossible to find a paper or television station that doesn’t offer at least some of their on-the-ground talent an opportunity to blog.

That shift in media, the addition of mainstream outlets to the blogosphere, has not eliminated the need for or the value of independent bloggers.  It is surprising in a way:  the institutional media not only had the advantage of incumbency, but staffed with professional writers and boasting both legitimacy and access, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to think that the move of papers and television stations to internet-based coverage would have displaced the amateurs.  Instead, they’ve thrived and grown in the new environment.

It isn’t my intention here to go through all the reasons why that is – as much as I find it an interesting conversation – but rather to look at one, singular example of why the professional media is incapable of displacing the amateurs: the coverage of Nikolai Khabibulin signing with the Edmonton Oilers.

In July of 2009, Nikolai Khabibulin became an unrestricted free agent after a strong season with the resurgent Chicago Blackhawks.  He had played just 45 regular season games thanks to a variety of maladies, but his 0.919 SV% was elite-level goaltending and made him arguably the free agent with the best recent results.

Unfortunately, his post-lockout record was rather more mixed.  Khabibulin had parleyed his 2004 Stanley Cup win with the Tampa Bay Lightning into a bloated four-year deal with the rebuilding Blackhawks, and things went sideways immediately.  The average save percentage of an NHL starter is generally in the 0.910 – 0.911 range; over the first three years of Khabibulin’s contract he wasn’t able to hit that mark once and in the first two seasons was well below it.  It was only his performance in the fourth year that provided any value for the Blackhawks, although given Khabibulin’s salary it isn’t clear that he outperformed his deal even in that final year.

Performance was one of two major issues: the other was health.  Over his four years in Chicago, the aging Khabibulin proved to be one of the league’s most brittle netminders.  In the post-lockout world, Khabibulin ranked fourth among all NHL goaltenders in time missed to injury, behind only perpetual IR list members Pascal Leclaire, Rick DiPietro, and Kari Lehtonen.

Despite the simple truths of the last two paragraphs, the Oilers’ signing of Khabibulin to a four-year, $3.75-million per season contract was not framed in the local media as signing an unhealthy 36-year old who had three bad seasons in his last four.  Rob Tychowski’s coverage of the signing in the Edmonton Sun typified the local media response.  His article appeared under a subheading describing Khabibulin as “the best free-agent goaltender available” and featured lines like the following:

  • “He became the first Russian goalie ever to win the Stanley Cup (2004) with the Tampa Bay Lightning and owns two Olympic medals, the last coming in 2002 when he started for the Russian bronze-medal team and was named the tournament’s top goaltender. “
  • “[H]e has good numbers, including a save percentage over .900 in 12 of his last 13 seasons.”

It’s not coverage that bubbles over with enthusiasm for the goaltender, but it certainly places him in the best possible light.  Over the month of July, pieces both critical of and friendly to the team continued to do that with Khabibulin.  At best, his health was mentioned as a “50-game [playing time] ceiling,” and his time in Chicago was rarely discussed, outside of the last year of his deal.  The free agency goaltending glut that forced goaltenders to sign tiny, short-term contracts was ignored altogether in the context of Khabibulin’s deal.  The fact that Khabibulin was subject to the NHL’s over-35 clause was also given short shrift.

At least, that is, in the mainstream.  The blogosphere had no shortage of critical reaction, much of it spearheaded by Tyler Dellow.  In July of 2009, Dellow wrote five pieces on the Khabibulin signing that basically lapped the combined effort of every Edmonton-based professional sports reporter.  Heck, Dellow’s first piece “A Loser Move for a Loser Franchise” managed to integrate Khabibulin’s faltering career, the career curve for goaltenders over the age of 35 and the implications for Khabibulin, the cap implications of the over-35 clause, the oversaturation of the goaltending market, and Khabibulin’s shaky health.  That’s more useful, relevant analysis than the combined bureaus of two local dailies were able to churn out in a month.

And there was more.  I’m focusing on Dellow here because I was either involved with or central to the criticism of the contract on two other site (Oilers Nation and Copper & Blue) and it’s more seemly to say “I told you so” indirectly than it is to do it directly.  Anyway, Dellow also compared Khabibulin’s performance to that of his peers, keyed in on the fact that the Oilers were the only team to offer him a four-year deal, focused on the risk management involved in the deal, and the difficulties in discriminating between product and process.

That, in a nutshell, is why the blogosphere is going to continue to thrive no matter how much more established organizations attempt to move into the medium.  Personally, I don’t think it’s a medium issue, and thus a move to the internet doesn’t allow more mainstream outlets to compete against blogs.  My own theory is that reporters, as a rule, do their best to avoid casting judgement and as a rule strive to keep their own voice from dominating any given piece.  While those are laudable motives in some ways, there are a couple of problems with them: first, in avoiding making judgements, reporters are often sacrificing independent analysis, and second the only expert quotes coming out on any signing are those coming from the team that actually did the signing.  This isn’t politics, where it’s easy to find multiple voices on any issue: in the NHL, the only general manager who will comment on the record about a free agent decision is the one who made it, and there simply aren’t respected independent experts who can comment on the validity of these signings.

So, even in the case of a signing with obvious warts like the Khabibulin deal, we get the opinions of the player, and the team, and the only balance to that is the reporter, who strives to pass on only the facts and is bound to face a negative response from his/her readership if he/she is overly critical.  The result of that is that the entire Edmonton-based professional sports media could have the sum of their commentary blown out of the water by a single article from a critical lawyer in Toronto.