|Nikolai Khabibulin, 38, has posted a 1.52 GAA & .945 save percentage in 2011-12 (Photo by Andy Devlin / EOHC).
– Nikolai Khabibulin
played four seasons and 202 games with the Chicago Blackhawks from 2005-2009. His 90-80-24 overall record rose from a well-below .500 mark in his debut campaign, to a dominant 25-8-7 line by the time his career as a Blackhawk was winding down.
He's seen what can happen when a rebuilding squad lights it up and begins to turn the corner. Heck, he was an integral component to it.
In 2008-09, his last season with Chicago, Khabibulin patrolled the pipes in 15 post-season games, posting an 8-6 record, along with a 2.93 goals-against average and .898 save percentage.
The Blackhawks disposed of the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks, but stalled against the Detroit Red Wings. Even so, the Madhouse on Madison was rocking as the Hawks made a return to the spring season; the club had missed it, too, in nine of the past 10 seasons, dating back to 1998.
On Jul. 1, 2009, Khabibulin signed a four-year, $15 million deal with the Oilers.
"I know a lot of us would have liked to have seen him stay here, especially with how he had played for us [in 2008-09], but players move on and it's a business," said Patrick Kane, who was selected No. 1 overall in 2007 and played two seasons with the veteran netminder.
"He's doing well, and we're doing well, so I suppose it all worked out. But he was unbelievable; an awesome, awesome goaltender."
Next season, Khabibulin was replaced with Antti Niemi in Chicago. The Blackhawks continued what they'd started, winning the Stanley Cup in a six-game series vs. the Philadelphia Flyers.
Kane scored the championship-winning goal, too.
"We were going through a couple tough seasons," he said. "Losing isn't the best, but we knew there was a goal we needed to meet. Khabby was such a huge part, helping, as a veteran, to get us to the next level.
"It's a shame he couldn't share in the win."
It's no secret that the 38-year-old goalie has shared a staggered road with the supporters in Oil Country. In 47 games last season, Khabibulin secured a 10-32-4 record, along with a 3.40 goals-against average (74th in the NHL) and .890 save percentage (73rd). A mid-season 13-game losing skid didn't help matters.
In doing so, the orange and blue hobbled to a second straight 30th-place ranking.
2011-12, however, has been a whole new ball game. He's racked up a 1.52 goals-against average and .945 save percentage in 11 games, ranking second in both; and, don't forget, a 7-2-2 record to highlight those numbers.
"Sometimes, you don't have the best team in front of you," Kane explained. Hockey's a team game, but I'm sure he struggled with that a little bit. He's a guy, though, that's getting older and older, but he seems to be getting better and better. He's a guy that's really younger than his age."
As Kane adds, it can be attributed to his stern mental approach. It doesn't hurt that having a long, 14-year career can lend credence to guidance in an impressionable locker room.
"He's a great talent, he works very hard; one of the hardest working goaltenders I've seen in practice. He won a Cup in Tampa Bay (2004), so he shed some light on us a little bit with that. We're happy for him; he's doing well."
Brent Seabrook, who played with Khabibulin in each season in Chicago, agreed with Kane's assessment.
"He was great," Seabrook said. "He played the game the right way. He's a true pro, he works hard every day, and he comes to the rink and plays the right way. It's good to see a guy that's accomplished so much in his career, and been around for so long, do well and continue to be a leader for young players.
"I know my experience was so good with him; to see how he prepared and got ready for games was awesome and it taught me so much."
Goaltenders usually don't step up as vocal leaders, but Khabibulin's on-ice example was more than enough. It also helped teach the Blackhawks' rookies what it took to be an NHLer, in every sense.
"He got involved when he needed to," Kane explained. "He was a great veteran leader in here, but he was an even better guy to learn from by example. He's one of the hardest working guys I've ever seen. You really learn a lot with leadership like that, and I think I've been able to apply it to my own game.
"I was younger guy coming in, and he was one of the older guys on he team; and I think his daughter was around the same age as me," Kane laughed. "I don't know how it started, but we ended up getting close to each other and I think he helped me become a better, more well-rounded player."
Kane, 22, the Blackhawks' leading scorer with six goals and 19 points this season, has already experienced the ride. Now he's seeing it happen in Edmonton, with an elite goaltender leading the charge in a rebound, something-to-prove 2011-12 campaign.
"It's not surprising at all," he said about Khabibulin's turnaround season. "He works too hard and is too good a goalie not to be playing well. You're seeing what happened here happen with the Oilers, a little bit. He's a big part of it, he's having an awesome season and is the reason that team is doing so well this year."Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick