It seems safe to say that the most surprising individual performance in the NHL this season to date has been that of Edmonton's Nikolai Khabibulin, the league's GVT leader. One season ago, awful play by Khabibulin (.890 save percentage, 3.40 GAA) and a rebuilding Edmonton Oilers team that was outplayed night after night combined to create an almost perfect storm of losing: Khabibulin's dismal 10-32-4 win-loss record last year was the worst winning percentage for any goalie since the Lockout with more than 20 games played.
Based on those results and the promising play of Edmonton's other goaltending option, sophomore Devan Dubnyk (12-13-8, 2.71, .916), not to mention Khabibulin's age (38) and off-ice legal troubles, it seemed likely that the Russian netminder's days as an NHL starter were fading in the rearview mirror. Most projections, including Hockey Prospectus' VUKOTA rating, predicted that Dubnyk would surpass Khabibulin in terms of both games played and level of performance in 2011-12.
Thus far, Dubnyk has been pretty good (.930 in five games), but nevertheless the 25-year-old's designs on the starting job have experienced a setback because Khabibulin has been simply other-worldly. Through nine games, the Russian veteran has a .964 save percentage and a miniscule 0.98 GAA. With those numbers, it's not surprising that his team's success has completely flipped around. This year, the Oilers have not lost a game in regulation with Khabibulin in net (7-0-2).
Most goalies coming off of very bad seasons, particularly those with a track record of NHL success, can be expected to bounce back during the following year as their numbers regress towards their usual talent level. There have been 41 goalies since 1996-97 that played at least 40 games with a save percentage of .895 or worse. Together, they combined to improve their numbers to .901 the following season, although they did suffer a 34% decline in minutes played. This suggests that the goalies as a group were unlucky during their poor seasons, which also makes sense since if their teams thought they were not capable they would not have given them that many starts in the first place. Some likely played with injuries, others may have had to deal with exceptional team factors, and some just had prolonged slumps or did not have the bounces go their way, although there were some goalies that were really not NHL caliber and that forced their team to consider other options in the crease. Given that Khabibulin's track record proves that he has NHL talent, the historical pattern indicates that it was a reasonable expectation to expect a large improvement in his play this season compared to last.
However, most of that group consisted of goalies in their twenties. Restricting the group to those 35 and over, it was less common for a goaltender to recover from a very poor season. Over the years, age and injuries take their toll and can rob a goalie of the ability to perform at their usual level. There were seven seasons where a goalie 35 years or older put up a save percentage of .895 or worse. All of them are well-known names and long-time NHL starters: Vernon, Osgood, Hrudey, Belfour, Kolzig, Joseph. Yet, the only one that was able to bounce back as a starting goalie the next season was Belfour, who actually managed it twice. Belfour followed his two poor seasons with two much improved campaigns (.913 average save percentage). The five other goalies combined for a mediocre .896, a number that showed very little improvement on the prior year.
Khabibulin is not a future Hall of Famer like Ed Belfour, but early signs are that he might have a similar propensity to bounce back from down years. Khabibulin's forgettable 2010-11 season was not the first time in his career that he suffered a steep decline in his performance. He endured a similar down year in 2005-06. Despite coming off of a 2004 Stanley Cup victory and playing well during the
Lockout in his home country for Ak Bars Kazan, Khabibulin struggled to immediately adapt to his new surroundings after signing a big money contract with Chicago. He ended the season with a 3.35 GAA and a .886 save percentage that was near the very bottom of the league among starting goalies. Khabibulin came back stronger the next year with a .902 save percentage, and then proceeded to improve his save numbers for each of his two remaining seasons with the Blackhawks.
Some have credited coach Tom Renney's defensive system with playing a big role in helping the team's goaltenders on the stats sheet. If the rest of the team is playing a large role in driving the numbers, then any projections for Khabibulin should be revised upwards accordingly, but it is difficult to evaluate that claim over a small sample size of games. For most teams, shot quality effects tend to even out over the course of an 82-game season. The Oilers may have had some early defensive success, but the key factor will be how well they are able to contain teams when facing them for the second or third time around this season.
Khabibulin's strong play in October makes it almost certain that his final numbers in 2011-12 will be much better than they ended up in 2010-11. For example, if Khabibulin faces the same number of shots this year as he did last year, and manages just a .900 save percentage the rest of the way, he would still end up at .911 for the season by virtue of his blistering start. If he performs at a league average level from here on out and ends up facing a total 1500 shots, Khabibulin would finish with a .922 rating.
If the Bulin Wall can continue to play like he is 10 years younger, the young Edmonton Oilers will find themselves in the playoff hunt this spring. Yet despite his outstanding start, Khabibulin's recent track record is concerning enough that one should remain somewhat hesitant to bet that he will sustain even an above average level of play for the rest of the season. As going from essentially worst to first in terms of goalie performance would be an almost unprecedented historical anomaly, expect some serious regression to hit Khabibulin as the season moves along. Yet, even if he has been a bit lucky so far, he has helped position the Oilers very well in the standings. According to Sport Club Stats, a mere .529 winning percentage over the rest of the season (the equivalent of 87 points in 82 games) would still leave the Oilers with a 62% chance of making the playoffs.
It has been a very exciting fall for hockey fans in Edmonton, and they should enjoy it as long as it lasts.
Philip Myrland is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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