For obvious reasons, I want good things to happen to Nikolai Khabibulin. With that said, the contrast between Alberta’s two hockey franchises has rarely been sharper than it is today. While Calgary is having a press conference to announce that they’ve added yet another elite player in the prime of his career, the Oilers are in the process of signing a 36 year old goalie to a four year contract. Why do I hate this contract so much?
1. Outside of 42 games in 2008-09, Khabibulin has not been a great goalie since 2001-02. Since then, he’s finished 18th, 27th, 43rd, 30th, 25th and 6th in save percentage. I am amazed at the number of people who are focused exclusively on the “6th” in 2008-09 with no thought whatsoever about the last five seasons and six years of his career. I was listening to Ryan Rishaug on Gregor’s show going on about how Khabibulin’s GAA is always below 3.00 which is a fine example of how setting the bar low enough will ensure that everyone passes.
2. Goalies don’t do keep playing very far beyond the age of 36, which was Khabibulin’s age by hockey-reference.com’s calculation. 28 goalies in NHL history have played at least 35 games at the age of 36. 18 goalies in NHL history have played at least 35 games at the age of 37. 10 goalies in NHL history have played at least 35 games at the age of 38. 8 goalies in NHL history have played at least 35 games at the age of 39. 4 goalies in NHL history have played at least 35 games at the age of 40. There is a tremendous rate of attrition just in terms of games played and that’s before you even get anywhere close to asking questions about the level of play which, for Khabibulin, has been exceedingly high once in the past six years.
3. The cap hits of players over the age of 35 are like herpes. You can’t get rid of them. If they retire, you’re stuck with the cap hit. If you send them to the minors, you’re stuck with the cap hit, less $100K. All the Oilers can do if Khabibulin doesn’t pan out is give someone else something to take his cap hit, like the Devils did with Vladimir Malakhov in 2006. That, of course, assumes that Khabibulin has the graciousness to retire if he starts to suck.
4. While decisions made in the past shouldn’t affect your decision making now, the Oilers went an awfully long way for JDD last year. They hurt their chances of winning and making the playoffs both by giving him games – JDD had a terrible save percentage – and (arguably) by not giving him games and running Roloson out there night after night. JDD can’t be sent down, we were told, because he was such a hot prospect that someone would grab him off waivers. They’ve either decided that JDD’s future starts in 2013-14, that he’s actually not that good or they intend to eat a chunk of Khabibulin’s contract. I’m no longer sure what the point of running without a backup goalie who was trusted by the coach was. An investment in developing the backup goalie of the future?
5. You cannot win a Stanley Cup if you’re paying market value for everyone. I’ve said this a million different times but the Oilers need to find some value contracts. It’s hard to see how this can possibly end up being a value contract for the Oilers. There aren’t a lot of value contracts on the roster at the moment.
6. The goalie market is completely oversaturated. It’s not a good year to be a goalie in search of a job. Even if the Oilers couldn’t handle the thought of someone like Craig Anderson, that meant that Khabibulin and Biron were fighting for the last starting job left in the NHL. How did the Oilers not just play them off against one another and let them stew about this for a while? Is there a game later tonight that they need a starting goaltender for?
7. Contrary to what Ryan Rishaug was saying on the radio, Khabibulin is not a particularly healthy fellow. He seems to miss 10-20 games a year with back/groin/knee problems. I’m no gerontologist but that doesn’t sound to me like something that gets better as people get older.
In short, the Oilers look to me like a team without a plan, the ability to read the market, evaluate the options available or any understanding of how to assemble a winning team in the modern NHL. This contract will be an anchor within a year or two, if it’s not an anchor next year. It’s going to be virtually impossible to get out from under. This move, signing a famous guy, is the kind of move that loser franchises make. Given everything that the Oilers have done since 2006, it’s increasingly hard to argue that they aren’t a poorly run loser franchise.