Commentary

The renaissance of Khabibulin

Updated: November 1, 2011, 2:20 PM ET
By Tim Kavanagh | Special to ESPN.com

Before the start of the 2011-12 season, Nikolai Khabibulin was left for dead by just about everyone in the fantasy hockey world. Based on what we'd seen during his trying 2010-11 season -- on and off the ice -- it appeared that the former star had nothing left in the tank and would be between the pipes only occasionally to give Devan Dubnyk a break. It appeared Dubnyk, 25, would be the man to grow with this impressive collection of young talent, with Khabibulin offering some pointers during practice and occupying the end spot on the bench during most games. After all, Khabibulin posted a 10-32-4 record in 46 starts in 2010-11, with a 3.40 goals-against average and .890 save percentage (SV%) while Dubnyk was 12-13-8 with a 2.71 and .916, respectively. As a result, the 38-year-old native of Sverdlovsk went largely undrafted in fantasy leagues.

But instead of fading quietly into the night, it's been a renaissance season for the veteran so far. His 5-0-2 record, along with a GAA of 1.12 and SV% of .960 (both tops in the NHL), led to his third-place finish for the October player of the month award, and the Oilers are atop the Northwest Division standings after 11 games. So will the owners in 93.9 percent of ESPN fantasy hockey leagues continue to be rewarded for their quick waiver-wire trigger finger? Or will Khabibulin's play fall off to last season's levels, rendering him a burden on an active fantasy roster?

To gain a better understanding of why Khabibulin is putting up gaudy numbers, it's helpful to examine his play this season from quantitative and qualitative standpoints. In comments to the Edmonton Journal recently, Khabibulin was quick to deflect some praise to the men playing in front of him. "Technically, I don't think I'm doing anything different from last year, but we're blocking a lot of shots. ... We've got the leader in the league," he said. He speaks of Ladislav Smid, whose 40 blocked shots remains the top mark in the NHL. As a team, the Oilers have blocked 184 shots (16.7 per game) this season, good for third overall. However, this is not far off the pace at which they blocked shots in 2010-11; the skaters prevented 1,219 shots from reaching the net during that campaign, which is 14.9 per game, a rate that was 10th in the league. The season before that, they were fourth, blocking 15.9 shots per game, while Khabibulin had a 3.03 GAA and .909 SV%. In other words, while the per-game rate is a little higher, it doesn't appear that the number of blocked shots is the reason for the turnaround, since this has been a staple of the Oilers' defensive game throughout Khabibulin's tenure in Edmonton.

[+] EnlargeNikolai Khabibulin
AP Photo/Jim MoneNikolai Khabibulin has allowed just eight goals in seven starts this season.

One of the more telling stats of any goalie is his performance on the penalty kill. So far this season, the Oilers have been short-handed 30 times with Khabibulin in the crease, and it wasn't until the most recent penalty kill that the opposing team scored. In total, Khabibulin has stopped 26 of 27 shots while short-handed, good for a .963 situational SV%, which is actually better than his even-strength SV% of .958. Interestingly enough, Dubnyk's even-strength SV% is a sliver higher (.959), while his short-handed SV% is .846. There's something to be said for the confidence with which a PK unit plays in front of a hot goaltender, but given the disparity between Khabibulin's mark and Dubnyk's -- as well as the fact that the veteran's SH SV% over the two prior seasons was .815 and .846, respectively -- this is an area where regression is expected as the season wears along. Then again, only about 20 percent of a goalie's seasonal stat line will be generated on the penalty kill, so what about the rest of the time?

Here's where the qualitative part comes in. As anyone who's watched the "Bulin Wall" in action this season will tell you, it appears that he's playing with the verve of his vintage self, as if he found the proverbial fountain of youth in the offseason. Moreover, as Ken Baker of NHL.com wrote recently, Khabibulin has been displaying excellent goaltending fundamentals, such as playing confidently at the front of his crease, moving well laterally and tracking the puck so that he positions himself properly. He's also been a stalwart at controlling rebounds, and this ability is a huge confidence booster for the netminder himself and the defense in front of him. We know how vital an NHL goalie's confidence is to his continued success.

Based upon the visual observations, the early dominance by Khabibulin is not a fluke but rather a skilled, veteran 'tender going through an especially hot streak of performances. His ratios are unsustainable at their current level, but by season's end, it would not be surprising to see him in the 2.20 to 2.30 range in GAA, and near the .920 SV% mark; this is, of course, assuming he stays healthy, which is no small feat for a man of his age who had significant back surgery in January 2010. Nevertheless, those projected ratios mean that there will be some rough patches ahead, but generally, he'll be good for rate stats that put him in the range of the better No. 2s in the fantasy hockey realm. On the other hand, the wins may not continue to be as plentiful, seeing as the Oilers are scoring at only a 2.18 goals-per-game clip; unfortunately, that's the one category over which Khabibulin has limited control.

Ultimately, for those who made the sharp move to pick him up off the waiver wire, he'll provide a nice return on investment, especially if he's being relied upon as only the third goalie on one's roster. But given the likely regression ahead in the ratios and wins categories, it may be equally smart to stick him on the trade block and see what you can get.

Rising and Falling

Top 40 Goalies

Note: Tim Kavanagh's top 40 goalies are ranked for their expected performance in ESPN Standard Leagues from this point on, not on the statistics that have already been accrued. ESPN standard stats include wins, goals-against average and save percentage. Last week's ranking is indicated in parentheses.

1. Tomas Vokoun, Was (1)
2. Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (2)
3. Roberto Luongo, Van (3)
4. Pekka Rinne, Nsh (6)
5. Ryan Miller, Buf (5)
6. Jimmy Howard, Det (9)
7. Tim Thomas, Bos (7)
8. Ilya Bryzgalov, Phi (4)
9. Carey Price, Mon (12)
10. Jonas Hiller, Ana (8)
11. Jonathan Quick, LA (10)
12. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pit (13)
13. Kari Lehtonen, Dal (15)
14. Corey Crawford, Chi (11)
15. Antti Niemi, SJ (14)
16. Cam Ward, Car (17)
17. Martin Brodeur, NJ (16)
18. Semyon Varlamov, Col (20)
19. Niklas Backstrom, Min (18)
20. Nikolai Khabibulin, Edm (25)
21. James Reimer, Tor (21)
22. Miikka Kiprusoff, Cgy (22)
23. Craig Anderson, Ott (23)
24. Al Montoya, NYI (19)
25. Jaroslav Halak, StL (24)
26. Jacob Markstrom, Fla (29)
27. Dwayne Roloson, TB (26)
28. Jose Theodore, Fla (27)
29. Johan Hedberg, NJ (31)
30. Cory Schneider, Van (28)
31. Mathieu Garon, TB (37)
32. Devan Dubnyk, Edm (30)
33. Ondrej Pavelec, Wpg (32)
34. Mike Smith, Pho (33)
35. Tuukka Rask, Bos (34)
36. Brian Elliott, StL (NR)
37. Michal Neuvirth, Was (36)
38. Jhonas Enroth, Buf (40)
39. Ray Emery, Chi (35)
40. Jonathan Bernier, LA (38)

Ilya Bryzgalov, Philadelphia Flyers (down four spots): All of the elite fantasy goalies have started well or put in a promising streak of outings at some point during the course of the first month. Bryzgalov is no different, as he stopped 41 of the first 42 regular-season shots he saw wearing a Flyers jersey. Unfortunately, he saved only 107 of the next 132. Saturday night's 24-save, one-goal-against win over the Carolina Hurricanes was an important one for his confidence, but the expectations from fantasy owners need to be tempered on Philly's newest franchise goalie.

Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens (up three spots): It's been an interesting week in Montreal since we last met. Before the Oct. 26 game against the Flyers, the Habs fired assistant coach Perry Pearn, a close associate of head coach Jacques Martin. Although Pearn's primary responsibility was for the Canadiens' power play (a unit that had converted on 3 of 32 opportunities at that point), the move appeared to shake up the entire organization. Price had been struggling -- his sterling .923 SV% of a season ago had given way to a .879 mark up to last week -- but since Pearn was let go, Price has been back to what we'd expected of him. In the three games since the move, he's allowed just three goals on 80 shots (a .963 SV%) while picking up three straight victories. It's a short-term bump, but maybe this is what the team needed to get back on track this season.

Kari Lehtonen, Dallas Stars (up two spots): After another week of action, Lehtonen remains atop the ESPN fantasy hockey Player Rater (among goalies and overall). So why is he ranked 13th based on how I project him in the three standard ESPN categories for the duration of the campaign? From a visual standpoint, he has not been as dominant lately as he was earlier this season (though he does keep winning, and is tops in the NHL with eight W's thus far), and as I cautioned two weeks back, his short-handed SV% has fallen considerably from his unsustainable early-season rate. The bottom line: He's one of the better No. 2s for fantasy purposes, and considering where he was drafted on average in fantasy leagues, that's not too shabby. But of the many early-season shooting stars we've seen in past seasons, many have come crashing back to their expected level of performance, and it's logical to think that will be the case for Lehtonen in the months ahead.

Time-shares

Dwayne Roloson (67.6 percent ownership in ESPN leagues) and Mathieu Garon (32.7 percent), Tampa Bay Lightning: As of last week's column, Roloson was plugging along with just one win, a 5.11 GAA and .858 SV% in four starts, devastating marks for anyone with the honor of relying upon him in fantasy. Meanwhile, Garon had won two of his four starts, posting a 1.51 GAA and .948 SV% in the process. It looked at the time like a time-share was developing, if not an outright changing of the guard, with Garon taking over as the No. 1. Although Garon earned a hard-fought victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night (stopping 36 of 39 shots), he fell apart in the following game, allowing five goals on 17 shots before being lifted by head coach Guy Boucher. In relief, Roloson saved all 10 shots and posted a 28-save shutout on Saturday. We've known Garon to be streaky in the past, so his return to Earth following his dalliance with greatness is no shock; on the other hand, Roloson has not looked to be at his best this season, and it could be a sign that he doesn't have another strong campaign in him. Translation: It appears the window to activate Garon may be closing (or already have closed), at least until his next hot streak, while Roloson's own inconsistency is nothing with which a fantasy owner wants to deal. The shutout was nice, but those who'd had him active all season are likely staring at a huge deficit in the goaltending categories right now. Keep both men on the bench for the time being.

Al Montoya (74.8 percent), Evgeni Nabokov (13.5 percent) and Rick DiPietro (0.7 percent), New York Islanders: Weird circumstance in Pittsburgh this past Thursday night. After Nabokov started the game -- his third in a row -- he was pulled at the end of overtime, and DiPietro came on for the shootout, only the fifth time this has happened in the league since the shootout was instituted in the 2005-06 season, according to Stats LLC. Although DiPietro was the losing 'tender in the shootout that night, he was given the starting nod for the team's following game, on Saturday against the San Jose Sharks. In that tilt, he stopped 27 of 30 shots, but was on the losing end again. Wait a minute, isn't there a third guy involved here? Montoya -- whose play has been considerably better than either of the other two -- has been on the bench or a healthy scratch for the past four games. Although the rumor mill has been churning with the idea that the Isles are showcasing Nabokov for a trade, at some point, the team has to turn back to Montoya, who has posted a 2.33 GAA and .923 SV% in his 25 appearances for the franchise going back to last season. Check to see if he was dropped in your league.

Jose Theodore (85.3 percent) and Jacob Markstrom (20.5 percent), Florida Panthers: At this point, it's hard to see the Panthers sending Markstrom back to the AHL when Scott Clemmensen is ready for a return, which could be in the very near future as he skated with the team in practice on Monday, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel. As a result, it won't be surprising to see Clemmensen sent down or shipped off in a trade. As for the two men at the top of the depth chart, Theodore notched a win against the Sabres on a 24-of-26 performance before losing 4-3 in a shootout to the Winnipeg Jets, while Markstrom had his first bad outing of the season, allowing four goals on 38 shots to the Ottawa Senators. Overall this season, the youngster has put up more impressive numbers, though Theodore's 2.57 GAA and .913 SV% are well ahead of his career averages. It doesn't seem as though this starting split will yield a true No. 1 anytime soon, so both men are worth rostering.

Ice Chips

In last week's column, I mentioned that the St. Louis Blues could be entering into a time-share situation with Brian Elliott riding a hot streak and Jaroslav Halak off to a brutal start to the season. In the past three games, we've traveled even further down that path, as Halak allowed four goals on 30 shots to the relatively impotent Oilers, while Elliott shut out the high-powered Vancouver Canucks and was a hard-luck loser to the Calgary Flames, relenting two goals but taking the loss. It's definitely worth it to add Elliott at this point to enjoy these exploits, but his track record suggests that the success is fleeting, so be prepared to bench (or drop) him again at first signs of trouble. … The New Jersey Devils announced Monday that Martin Brodeur was being taken off of injured reserve, with Keith Kincaid returning to the AHL affiliate. With games on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday this week, Brodeur figures to get the nod in at least one. Meanwhile, the window continues to close on adding Johan Hedberg off the waiver wire, as the veteran is now available in only 22.6 percent of ESPN leagues. Even with Brodeur recovered sufficiently to come off IR, Devils coach Peter DeBoer may lean on Hedberg for a decent percentage of starts to keep Marty fresh for the stretch run. He'll continue to be one of the more valuable real-life No. 2s in the fantasy world. … Speaking of valuable real-life No. 2s, we talk frequently about players with the talent to be a No. 1 but stuck behind another franchise netminder. Is 27-year-old Minnesota Wild backup backstop Josh Harding such a player? Harding has saved 74 of the 77 shots he's faced this season (a .961 SV%) and has shown flashes of brilliance in spot duty in seasons past but is unlikely to supplant Niklas Backstrom on the depth chart. He has little value now, since the Wild are not an automatic win when he gets the nod; however, he's a name to stash away in case he is moved to a better situation later this season. … On the injury front, Toronto Maple Leafs starting goalie James Reimer was eligible to come off the IR as of Sunday, and could return to action this week, with three games on the docket. Time to reactivate him.

Tim Kavanagh is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @timjkavanagh.

Tim Kavanagh

Fantasy and Insider
Tim Kavanagh is an associate editor for ESPN Fantasy and Insider, with specific responsibility for NHL and fantasy hockey coverage in addition to other sports.

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