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Tencer: Crowded Crease

by Dan Tencer / Edmonton Oilers
Nikolai Khabibulin has the most experience mong Oilers goaltenders, but will he stay healthy enough to carry the team through 2010-11?
One night after Magnus Paajarvi hit for the cycle in pre-season action (goals EV, PP & SH + 1 assist) in a game that also featured a goal from Taylor Hall, it’s understandably difficult to focus on a storyline other than the play of the offensive young stars.

But that’s exactly what I want to do today.

You see, the biggest question mark at training camp isn’t at forward or on the blue line: it’s in goal. The de facto starting netminder hasn’t played a game since last November, the two younger goalies are too close to choose and there’s an NHL veteran on a two-way contract pushing to make things interesting. Trimming down to two goalies from four will be the most challenging decision for Steve Tambellini and Tom Renney.

Starting with Nikolai Khabibulin, he’s set to enter his scond year as an Edmonton Oiler, having played just 18 games last year before being sidelined by a back injury that eventually required surgery. After a week of hard practice to start training camp, Khabibulin told the assembled media today that his back has held up well and he’s confident in his health situation moving forward. I would imagine, however, that the true test won’t be until he gets some consistent game action. He hasn’t played yet, explaining that he’s still feeling a little bit of rust, particularly when it comes to anticipating and reacting to the play.

So, what can we expect this season from Nikolai Khabibulin? If he’s healthy and regains his form from the 18 games he played last season, he’ll make a huge positive impact on the results of the team this season. However, there’s realistic potential for his health and/or legal issues to present a problem for him this season, making the job of his backup a decision of paramount importance.

That brings us to Devan Dubnyk and Jeff Deslauriers. Dubnyk has played parts of both pre-season games, stopping 29 of 32 shots faced and performing very well, outside of a nightmarish goal allowed on a shot by Peter Schaefer in the win over Vancouver. A former first round draft pick and now 24 years old, Dubnyk has less NHL experience than Deslauriers but was the better goaltender after the Olympic break last season. I’m interested to see if Dubnyk is able to carry the momentum forward from last season, if the switch actually did flick “on”…or if, perhaps, it was a hot run for a young goaltender who might need more seasoning.

Jeff Deslauriers & Devan Dubnyk shared goaltending duties the later half of last season.
Of the two goaltenders, Dubnyk is slightly bigger, slightly younger and employs a more even keeled and composed demeanour. Deslauriers, on the other hand, has more NHL experience, has single-handedly stolen games at the top level and plays with a very outward fire. From what we’ve seen, both goaltenders have struggled with consistency, and have both been forced to play behind a weak team while playing more games than they would have in a perfect world.

And, now, there are but four pre-season games left to showcase their abilities and earn an NHL job once again. For one of them, a plane ticket to Oklahoma City likely awaits within two weeks.

Further complicating the issue is the presence of veteran backstop Martin Gerber, signed to a two-way contract after spending last season in the KHL. Gerber is no stranger to Oilers fans, as a member of the Carolina Hurricanes Stanley Cup winning team in 2006.

In 226 NHL games, Gerber has an above average save percentage of .910 and a record of 110-78-21. At 36 years old, Gerber has been referred to by some as an “insurance policy” if a circumstance creeps up like last season where the situation in the crease changes dramatically. Gerber was brought in primarily to ensure a strong option for Oklahoma City in the AHL and, given the rebuilding phase that the team is in right now, it would make sense to start him in the minors in favour of giving one of the younger netminders more development at the NHL level.

In an ideal circumstance, Nikolai Khabibulin starts 60 games for the Oilers this year with Dubnyk or Deslauriers spotting in for 22 games. The other young goaltender would get a good chunk of time in Oklahoma City, splitting the time in the AHL with Gerber. It’s a fine plan if you don’t factor in potential injuries, performance issues, waiver claims and the other variables that could come into play.

It’s entirely possible that the way they start the season in goal won’t be the way it goes for the entire 82 games, and as such, it was an astute move by Steve Tambellini to improve the depth of the organization at that position in the off-season.
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