At this point in his career, Nikolai Khabibulin isn’t a very good goalie. Aside from not being very good, he’s frequently injured. Aside from not being very good and frequently injured, he’s at an age where professional athletes are prone to sudden steep drops in ability.
Yet, for some reason, NHL general managers keep getting suckered into spending money on this guy. This year, it’s the Chicago Blackhawks employing an unreliable goalie at an inflated salary. And they're suffering the consequences for it.
Certainly, few would argue that Khabibulin has been problematic so far in his second stint with Chicago. He’s played four games, posting a .811 save percentage, and has now missed five games since leaving a November 16 contest against Nashville with an injury, as per NHL.com, after allowing two goals on eight shots.
But given Khabibulin’s age and recent history, none of that should be especially surprising.
Injuries are a fact of life for the veteran goaltender. Prior to signing with the Blackhawks over the summer, TSN records that Khabibulin had missed 88 games to injury during his time with the Edmonton Oilers, representing a little under one-third of that team's schedule in those seasons.
And this wasn't a recent development; prior to joining the Oilers, Khabibulin had been the NHL’s fourth-most injury-prone starter from 2005-2009. Given that he spent those years with Chicago, the Blackhawks must have known this.
Did they bank on his performance being good enough to compensate for that time lost to injury? It’s hard to see how they could have. According to hockey-reference.com, of the 36 active goaltenders to play 200 or more games since the 2004-05 lockout, only four have posted a save percentage inferior to Khabibulin’s .903.
The list of goalies with a save percentage within one point of Khabibulin’s in that span looks like this:
While hockey-reference.com lists all of those players as “active” goalies, the truth is that only Peter Budaj still has an NHL contract. Mathieu Garon went overseas, John Hedberg was bought out of his deal and the others retired recently.
Thus far, we’ve established that the 40-year-old Khabibulin is not very good by NHL standards and spends a lot of time on the injured list, but we haven’t considered the more interesting question: Why do teams keep signing him?
There is a long answer to that question and a short answer, and the short answer looks like this:
Khabibulin has managed—at least, prior to this season—to come up big in years where he was an unrestricted free agent, and NHL teams have ignored the long-term record in favour of the short-term results. It’s getting less and less excusable with time.
Chicago’s initial big-money contract to Khabibulin, back in the summer of 2005, was excusable. Khabibulin had just won the Stanley Cup as Tampa Bay’s starting goalie, and he had a strong long-term track record. That he then played replacement-level hockey for three of the next four seasons in Chicago made the deal a bad one, but at least the rationale was understandable.
Far less understandable was what happened next. Khabibulin rebounded strongly in the fourth year of his deal with the Blackhawks, and so Edmonton decided to reward him for that one good year with a new four-year contract (albeit at lower dollars).
The progression there was much the same as it had been in the Windy City. Khabibulin was hurt the first year, terrible the second year, mediocre the third year and then fantastic over 12 games in his final kick at the can with the Oilers. Edmonton had seen enough, though, and let him go to free agency.
That’s where Chicago, not having learned the first time, comes back into the picture. Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman limited the term of Khabibulin’s new deal to a single season but still handed out serious money: $1.7 million in guaranteed salary, with another $300,000 potentially available in bonuses, according to capgeek.com.
Khabibulin’s early response looks a lot like the majority of his play over the past eight seasons: lousy, with gusts of injured. The only surprise is that the Blackhawks expected anything else.