Nikolai Khabibulin: Edmonton Oilers Goalie Is NHL's Biggest Surprise

Adam GrahamAnalyst IINovember 1, 2011

DALLAS, TX - JANUARY 26:  Goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin #35 of the Edmonton Oilers walks to the ice before a game against the Dallas Stars at American Airlines Center on January 26, 2011 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

If I asked you who the best goaltending duo in the NHL was, what would your answer be?

Would it be Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider in Vancouver? Perhaps it’s Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask in Boston. How about Martin Brodeur and the resurging Johan Hedberg in New Jersey?

All of those are good guesses, but through the first month of the 2011-2012 season, the best goaltending has come from Edmonton.

That’s right, the Edmonton Oilers. The team that finished tied for 28th in goals allowed last season and had their top goaltender, Nikolai Khabibulin, spend time in jail and on house arrest over the summer due to his impaired driving charges.

The play of Khabibulin and Devan Dubnyk is by far biggest surprise of the young NHL season so far, even more surprising than the Oilers' 7-2-2 start.

After all, you could have guessed this young Oilers squad would have a lot of energy early on and might show signs of improvement. It added Ryan Smyth and drafted Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in the offseason and its other young forwards like Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle are a year older and should be a year better.

There were signs that the offense would be there, but nothing to suggest the defence and especially the goaltending would be this good. The play of Khabibulin was the weakest of many weak links for the Oilers last season. He had the most losses of any NHL goaltender in just 47 games and he also posted an ugly 3.40 goals against average, which was the worst among goalies that played more than 30 games.

However, this season both Khabibulin and Dubnyk have goals against averages of less than 2.00 through the month of October and Khabibulin has amazingly stopped 96 percent of the shots he’s faced.

The 38-year-old Russian is the latest of many athletes that have come back from serving jail time without showing any signs of rust, so perhaps that part of his improbable return to excellence shouldn’t be quite as surprising as you might initially think.

The real reason why he’s such a surprise is because athletes in their late 30s whose stats have been declining for the last two seasons just don’t turn things around this quickly and become dominant again. They usually fade off into retirement or take on some sort of mentoring role for a younger talent at their position.

This doesn’t mean that Khabibulin isn’t necessarily helping Dubnyk become a better goaltender as well, but he certainly isn’t ready to give up the No. 1 job, either. In a recent interview with the Yahoo! Sports Puck Daddy blog, Khabibulin suggested that neither goalie was being slotted ahead of the other. It was always going to come down to whoever played better.

“We both knew there would be enough chances to play. I thought that whoever plays best and the team keeps winning, that goaltender would be the starter. The coaches would play whoever is winning. I think this system will continue throughout the season," he said.

Clearly Khabibulin is keeping things in perspective and that will help him as the season goes on. It’s extremely unlikely that he’ll be able to maintain the ridiculous numbers he’s put up so far, just like it’s very unlikely the Oilers will still be on top of the Northwest Division standings at the end of the regular season.

However, if there’s one thing on Nikolai Khabibulin’s side it’s that one of the few hockey players who has also become dominant at an older age is Tim Thomas, another goaltender. If Thomas can do it, then why can’t the Bulin Wall? He still has a long season ahead of him, but at least he has a reason to believe he can still be the goaltender he once was at the age of 38.

The question is, do you believe?


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