Redemption for Khabibulin?

One of the few unmistakable errors that Steve Tambellini has been unable to gain some distance from in the eyes of Edmonton Oilers fans is the signing of Nikolai Khabibulin. Other mistakes have been sent away (Patrick O’Sullivan) or haven’t resonated because the club is in rebuilding mode, but Khabibulin was signed for big dollars and term during a time when Tambellini was undeniably trying to get his team into the post-season.

While those of us who criticized the signing when it was announced have looked fairly good since, I can’t help but remember what unpredictable creatures goaltenders are, more so than players at any other position in the NHL. That got me wondering – have other goaltenders at the tail end of their career been able to bounce back from the kind of bad performance Khabibulin has had? Is there a previous example of redemption to look to?

To answer that question, I decided to turn to the excellent As Nikolai Khabibulin is a 38-year old coming off a season where he posted a 0.890 save percentage, I decided to look for goaltenders over the last 20 years who met two criteria:

  • Between 36 and 40 in age
  • Having posted a save percentage between 0.875 and 0.905

That list, in its splendour, follows:

Goalie Season Age Save % Last Year?
Sean Burke* 2006-07 40 0.901 Yes
Dwayne Roloson 2007-08 38 0.901 No
John Vanbiesbrouck 2000-01 37 0.901 Yes^
Mike Vernon* 2001-02 39 0.899 Yes
Kelly Hrudey* 1997-98 37 0.897 Yes
Ed Belfour* 2006-07 40 0.892 No*
Bob Essensa 2000-01 36 0.892 Yes^
Grant Fuhr 1998-99 36 0.892 No
Nikolai Khabibulin 2010-11 38 0.890 TBD
Chris Osgood* 2009-10 37 0.888 No
Garth Snow 2005-06 36 0.886 Yes
Glenn Healy 2000-01 38 0.885 Yes

*player meets criteria more than once, in which case final season is shown

^player had another season, but played fewer than 10 games

Four players went on to play at least one more season after the one in question. Let’s consider them.

Dwayne Roloson lost his starting job in Edmonton to Mathieu Garon thanks to his performance in 2007-08, butgot it back the next year. That season was very much a one-off; it was preceded by seasons where Roloson posted 0.909, 0.908, 0.933 and 0.927 save percentages. He’s been very good since, and was phenomenal backstopping Tampa Bay to the conference finals this season.

The story is a bit different for Ed Belfour. At the age of 36, Belfour posted a 0.895 SV% over 60 games for the Dallas Stars; this total followed a 0.905 SV% performance the year before and it seemed like the combative goalie’s play was tailing off. He rebounded the following year in Toronto, however, and had two strong years before dipping again at age 39, a dip that he was unable to pull out of.

Grant Fuhr’s 1998-99 performance was followed up by a 0.856 SV% season with the Calgary Flames; Fuhr was relegated to Saint John of the AHL and retired.

The future is still open for Chris Osgood. The veteran goalie appeared to be slowing down in 2008-09, but rebounded in the playoffs and helped Detroit to the Stanley Cup finals before posting poor numbers the next season. This year, he played in just 11 games thanks to injury, posting a 0.902 SV%; my guess is that he’s done but that hasn’t been shown yet.

So, could Nikolai Khabibulin rebound? The hope for the Oilers must be that he follows Roloson’s career path, resurging after a dismal performance. We’ve already seen one significant dip (following the lockout with Chicago, Khabibulin was awful for two seasons), and Belfour never emerged from the second, so the other potential positive comparison isn’t a favourable one.

Naturally, Khabibulin is a unique individual, and his future can’t be pigeon-holed based on what others have done. All that recent history can tell us is that the odds are certainly not in his favour.