There is a lot of excitement in Oil Country about the addition of several new players up front and on defence that should result in an improved line-up for the 2011-12 season.
The general perception amongst the fans that I talk with on a daily basis on “Oilers Lunch” is that Oilers Management upgraded the make-up of the team overall in the last several weeks through free agency and trades.
The addition to the forward ranks of Eric Belanger
gives the Oilers a much-needed veteran centre that can win face-offs and kill penalties. Free Agents Ben Eager
and Darcy Hordichuk
give the team functional toughness, with Eager being an effective “energy player” who has seen action in 45 play-off games over the last three seasons.
On defence the biggest addition for the Oilers should be the return of Ryan Whitney
from injury. Whitney picked up 27 points and was +13 in 35 games last season before going down with a freak ankle injury in December. Getting him back at 100% is paramount to any kind of Oilers success this year, though some pundits suggestions that he could have a 65-point season seems highly unlikely...lol!
The Oil also changed the look on the back end by giving former #3 overall pick Cam Barker
a chance to jump start his career and by altering the look of the third pairing on defence by moving the more offensive Kurtis Foster to Anaheim for the hard-nosed Andy Sutton
Those moves combined with a healthier Oilers squad and the potential addition of a franchise center in #1 overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
to team should result in an improved performance.
But the biggest question remains what about the goaltending.
When General Manager Steve Tambellini did his end of the year synopsis following the conclusion of the dreary 2009-10 campaign he stated something to the effect of when Khabibulin went down to the back injury the organization lost their MVP.
Signed to a four-year, 15 million dollar contract by the Oilers in the summer of 2009 to be a stabilizing influence in goal, Khabibulin went 7-9-2 in ’09-’10 with a 3.03 GAA and a .909 save percentage prior to be lost to what turned out to be season-ending back surgery in November.
As someone who has the privilege of travelling with the Oilers on a daily basis allow me to suggest that the belief with Oilers veteran corps that season pretty much died at the point that Khabibulin was no longer available.
After a seismic Oil Change which vetted the organization of several veterans and saw the team go into a rebuilding mode with a pronounced youth movement last season the one area where the organization was hoping for some real veteran consistency was in goal.
It didn’t happen.
Khabibulin struggled through one of the worst seasons of his career, positing dismal numbers (10-32-4, 3.40 GAA and .890 SVP.)
Notice I said “one” of the worst seasons of his career, not “the” worst season of his career.
The distinction is worth noting, because even though clearly Devan Dubnyk
out-played Khabibulin last year and usurped him as the Oilers #1 goaltender, history has shown that veteran NHL goaltenders with pedigree like Khabibulin fight back, and Nikolai himself has a history of this.
After winning the Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2003-04 and following the lock-out in 2004-05, Khabibulin signed a four-year deal worth 27 million with the rebuilding Chicago Blackhawks in August of 2005.
The 2005-06 season did not go as planned for Khabibulin and the ‘Hawks.
Despite opening the vaults to sign Khabibulin, Martin Lapointe and Adrian Aucoin Chicago struggled through a dismal 26-43-13 campaign.
Khabibulin’s numbers that season (17-26-6, 3.35 GAA and .886 SVP) were very similar to what he posted in Edmonton last year. To further compound matters for the Blackhawks that year Lapointe went -30 and Aucoin scored one goal and went -13 in 33 games. This accelerated the curve for integrating Brent Seabrooke (who was a 20 at the time) and Duncan Keith (who was 21) in the line-up; and suffice to say the ‘Hawks benefitted from it.
Whispers around the NHL at that time were that Khabibulin was finished; they would prove to be a tad premature.
Over the next three seasons Khabibulin’s numbers would improve and so did the Blackhawks. From a .886 SVP in 2005-06, to a .902 in 2006-07, to .909 in 2007-08 and culminating with a stellar 25-8-7 record, 2.33 GAA, and a .919 SVP in 2008-09 when he fended off the challenge of Cristobal Huet to be Chicago’s starting goaltender on a team that went three rounds in the play-offs.
The question is for Oilers fans, can Khabibulin do it again?
I recently asked former Tampa Bay captain Dave Andreychuk and ‘Hawks Television Analyst Eddie Olcyzk, who both played with Khabibulin during their careers, if they thought Nikolai could bounce back.
Andreychuk and Olcyzk both reiterated the same points, that Khabibulin has the work ethic and the competitive drive to get his game to being a consistent #1 starter in the NHL, and that he has had a history of overcoming difficult stretches during the course of his career.
I have also learned not to bet against veteran goaltenders.
In 2008-09 in the first year that I was Color Analyst for the Oilers Radio Network in my mind I had Mathieu Garon pencilled in as the Oilers #1 goaltender with Dwayne Roloson being his back-up after Garon clearly posted better numbers between the two in 2007-08.
Roloson wrestled the Oilers starting role back and ended up being named Team MVP for 2008-09.
Fast forward a couple of years later and the 41 year-old Roloson will have the 33 year-old Garon as his back-up in Tampa Bay.
Another example of the veteran goaltender fighting back is Tim Thomas in Boston.
My guess is the majority of you who follow hockey figured Tuukka Rask was going to be the Bruins #1 goaltender this past season after he significantly posted far better numbers than Thomas in 2009-2010.
But despite being 13 years older than Rask the 37 year-old Thomas fought back in Beantown en route to winning the Conn Smythe Trophy and guiding the Bruins to their first Stanley Cup Championship since 1972.
That is the funny thing about the goaltending position, age doesn’t seem to matter if a guy has the competitive spirit and drive he can bounce back late in his career, and as a result it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that the ‘Bulin wall bounces back as well. Bob Stauffer is the Analyst for the Oilers Radio Network and Host of "Oilers Lunch"