Lots of wistful sighing has been done in the last few days about the early-season performances of a number of outstanding players.
Phil Kessel and James Neal are currently scoring goals at phenomenal rates and earning all the praise the comes with it. Jason Spezza is doing it all offensively for a terrible Senators team. Jon Quick is sitting on three consecutive shutouts. Thomas Vanek is leading the Sabres to a phenomenal start. Tyler Seguin looks lethal. Marc-Andre Bergeon is leading his team in points from the blue line. And let’s not forget, this time last year, people were legitimately asking if Stamkos had the ability to score 50 in 50.
And yet somehow, in all this, poor Nikolai Khabibulin currently has the second-best GAA and third-best save percentage in the league, and no one is talking about it.
There has to be a reason, right?
Given the amount of credit players in the NHL get simply for being old and still in the league, you’d think that the kind of Khabibulin’s off to (sub-1 GAA, .963 save percentage, no regulation losses) would at least be worthy of a few national headlines if nothing. But for the most part, people seem completely unimpressed with the performance. It’s not like Edmonton is scoring a lot of goals, since they have just 16 in eight games.
That fact alone should have TV crews lined up around the block to get B-roll of him stopping shots in practice and answering a to horde of reporters after every game. The way people talked about Mark Recchi throughout last season, you would have thought he won the Art Ross. Nicklas Lidstrom won a Norris just for being north of 40. Dwayne Roloson was largely credited with saving a team that went to the Eastern Conference Finals. All anyone hears out of Edmonton theses days “Kid Line” this and “New Arena” that.
And sportswriters love a good redemption story, right? Well how about the fact that he spent part of the summer in JAIL? And this wasn’t just any jail, it was two weeks the infamous “Tent City” in Arizona, where temperatures can rise to more than 120 degrees during the summer. This is of course not to excuse the drunk driving Khabibulin did last year, but as redemption songs go, this could be a pretty good one.
Or hey, if that’s too much to ask (and it would be understandable if it was), how about the fact that Khabibulin has been fairly terrible at keeping the puck out of the net since the end of the lockout? In that time, he’s earned $42 million on two separate four-year deals with Chicago and Edmonton, and posted a save percentage of more than .910 exactly once (in 2008-09). Since coming to Edmonton, he hasn’t posted a GAA of less than 3.00. Last year, his save percentage was .890. And if, in September, you had suggested to anyone who was even passingly familiar with the sport of hockey that Nikolai Khabibulin would have spent one second as the sort of goalie who was statistically average, let alone near-league-leading, you’d have been rightly pelted with rotten fruit.
His most recent game against the Canucks was his worst of this young season, and in it, he allowed two goals on 37 shots. In his only two losses, both of which were in overtime, he allowed just one goal each.
This kind of performance usually gets someone some Masterton talk, no matter how early in the season it is. So why doesn’t anyone care? I have three theories:
1) He’s Nikolai Khabibulin
Again, no one thinks Nikolai Khabibulin is any good at all, and understandably so. It’s early yet and we’ve all seen enough post-lockout hockey to realize that when he regresses back to the 38-year-old Khabibulin we’ve all grown accustomed to, he is going to do it hard and fast. No use getting invested in a guy that’s gonna have a GAA of 3-plus by the All-Star break, no matter who he is.
2) Look who his coach is
Tom Renney is known for having his teams play it pretty close to the vest, and those 16 goals for aren’t a coincidence. This is a team that’s almost hilariously defense-first, and the second the puck enters their zone, they collapse with the force of a dying star. They’ve blocked 131 shots (eighth in the league) in eight games.
3) He plays for the Oilers
Plus the Oilers are off to this fairly hot start (they’re second in their division, behind the Avalanche somehow) and that, too, is unsustainable. They’re the Oilers, and everyone on the team with the exception of Khabibulin is about 15 years old. The No. 2 defenseman in Edmonton right now is Corey Potter. Jeff Petry’s No. 3. Hell, Tom Gilbert’s No. 1! There’s no way any of this success as a team or a defense lasts through Thanksgiving.
And besides, the more time spent talking about Khabibulin means there’s less time to spend drawing hearts around Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ headshot in the media guide.
Personally I think it’s pretty cool that Khabibulin is out there playing some of the best hockey of his life. We better enjoy it while we can because he’ll be back to giving up five on 23 again in no time.