Commentary

New bench boss, same goaltending dilemma for Blackhawks

Updated: October 17, 2008, 1:22 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

New Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, never accused of being a goalie whisperer in his days at St. Louis and Colorado, is inheriting an in-the-crease soap opera.

Through the first four games of a somewhat disappointing start in the NHL's reawakened giant of a market, Cristobal Huet and Nikolai Khabibulin have split the starts and the work in net.

Khabibulin, previously all but dared to take his equipment bag and flee to Russia -- which would free the Blackhawks of their commitment to pay him and open up salary-cap room -- stopped 29 of 30 shots as Chicago finally broke through with a 4-1 victory over Phoenix on Wednesday night.

[+] EnlargeNikolai Khabibulin
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesNikolai Khabibulin is still owed $6.75 million in the final season of his four-year deal.

Huet, signed to a four-year, $22.5 million deal in July, hasn't been awful so far, but he's south of a .900 saves percentage, and Khabibulin has been better.

Yes, it's early -- very early -- and the 2008-09 body of work is meager.

But it heats up the question: What's a GM to do? In Chicago, that GM is Dale Tallon, with Scotty Bowman having considerable say above him, and with a new and veteran coach running the bench in the wake of Denis Savard's firing.

Tallon knows that if Khabibulin plays well, it increases his trade value, despite the $6.75 million salary he is owed in the final season of his four-year deal. It also makes it more attractive for the Blackhawks to ride through at least the first half of the season with both high-priced goalies on the roster -- and because they want to, not because, as is the case now, they have to.

Nobody was willing to take on Khabibulin and his contract through the waiver route in late September. After he cleared waivers, the Hawks had the option of clearing cap space by sending him to the minors, to Rockford of the AHL, knowing that if they tried to recall him, he would have to go through re-entry waivers and could be claimed with Chicago on the hook to pay half his salary and his new team the other half.

The Hawks decided not to do that.

When the NHL season started, Khabibulin stopped shopping around and considering a retreat to Russia. So the Hawks were, well, stuck with him. They could stop leaving tourism brochures about Lake Ilmen and Volga cruises in his locker, hoping he'd decide to go to Russia -- or perhaps to his native Ukraine.

And now that the season has started, the other 29 NHL teams are taking stock of their own goaltending situations, and if either panic or reality causes them to ponder looking outside the organization for other options, the first place they'd look is Chicago.

With each passing day, Khabibulin's existing contract becomes less onerous, so that's an issue, too: If the Hawks hold onto him long enough, the rental bounty for him as the deadline nears could get better and better. But if he's at least still alternating at that point, and playing decent for a team still in line for a playoff spot, it's harder and harder to justify dealing him. If Chicago is out of it, or if Khabibulin has both proven himself at least still capable while being a clear No. 2, the Hawks might be in position to hold up a desperate on-the-bubble Eastern Conference team for draft choices and other considerations, especially if the other team has a GM desperately trying to save his job.

Finally, though, if you're GM of another team, you're still not 100-percent certain Khabibulin, who will turn 36 in January, is still capable of staying healthy and being as staunch as he was for Tampa Bay in the 2003-04 season, when he helped the Lightning win the Stanley Cup.

So, absolutely, there are a lot of complications and what-ifs, which makes for interesting potential negotiations and subplots.

After the first week, the list of starting goalies stinking out arenas includes both the proven elite who figure to snap out of it (you'd think, anyway), and the unproven who still haven't earned the right to have their teammates shrug and convincingly say they know the goalie's going to rebound.

With the concession that one awful night can skew the statistics at this point of the season, those ranks include:

--Dallas' Marty Turco
--Anaheim's Jean-Sebastien Giguere
--Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff
--Columbus' Pascal Leclaire
--Toronto's Vesa Toskala
--Nashville's Dan Ellis
--Colorado's Peter Budaj
--And perhaps, at least in relation to his past standards, Vancouver's Roberto Luongo.

So you take a look at that list, and you ask yourself: Which team might be starting to wonder if it needs to do something? Which team might be remembering last season -- when the Ducks were offering Ilya Bryzgalov around and settled for unloading him on waivers to Phoenix -- and might be kicking themselves for not making a deal for him before he went on waivers? It was understandable when nobody claimed Khabibulin last month, when optimism reigned -- even about unproven or suspect goaltending. But now, the picture is changing a bit.

The obvious choice as a possible Khabibulin suitor now is Colorado, with Budaj struggling horribly out of the gate in his latest opportunity to nail down the Avalanche's No. 1 job. Colorado has about $5.5 million in cap room available, so it would take some tinkering or sending the Blackhawks a significant salary in return to make room.

Simply sending Budaj to Chicago to serve as Huet's backup wouldn't quite be enough, because Budaj's cap figure is "only" $800,000 this season. In fact, how's this for a contrast in allocating resources in the cap age: Chicago's two goalies are making $12.3 million this season; at Colorado, Budaj and Andrew Raycroft are pulling in a combined $1.6 million. But Colorado could find a way to pull it off.

Yet there's this looming in the background: It became obvious to folks in Denver long ago that, especially if Joe Sakic had decided to retire, Colorado was being introduced to a small-market NHL approach, so it's not automatic that the Avalanche -- and Pepsi Center magnate Stan Kroenke, who also owns the NBA's Denver Nuggets and MLS's Colorado Rapids -- would be willing to get back up to the ceiling figure. Kroenke would have to be convinced that with the automatic sellout era far in the Avalanche's rear-view mirror, obtaining competent goaltending -- even at the cost of getting back up to the cap -- would be a wise investment, not profligacy.

So what should the Hawks do?

Wait.

Keep open minds, even accepting that if Khabibulin plays so well, he deserves to be anointed the No. 1 ahead of Huet; realize that while great play from Khabibulin increases the magnitude of the dilemma, it also is a win-win situation.

And see if anyone else gets desperate.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-released "'77" and "Third Down and a War to Go."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

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