I had an idea rattling around in my head before the season started, something about goaltending and whether the Oilers would limit Nikolai Khabibulin’s starts enough that he didn’t cost the Oilers or that the cost was at least kept to a minimum. After last night, I think we can say that that won’t be the case.
As of the end of the 2012-13 season, Khabibulin will have somehow managed to accumulate $49.3MM (give or take some escrow) in earnings since turning 30. He has posted a .905 save percentage during this period, which puts him 38th out of the 53 goalies who have played at least 10,000 minutes during that span. (Of interest, to me anyway, is how tiny the spread is amongst these guys – Tim Thomas is first with a .921 and Brian Boucher is last with a .900.) He is 40 years old, an age when we would no longer reasonably expect him to be beating his career save percentage for the last ten years.
Why, then, would the Oilers have started him against Los Angeles, in a game that saw them have two days off before game day and a day off afterwards? Devan Dubnyk, the other goalie, is a career .911 starter, who has posted a career .915 outside of his first year in the NHL and has posted a .918 this season. The difference between Dubnyk and Khabibulin probably isn’t massive – say 1 fewer goal on every 100 shots – but it exists. For all the stuff that Khabibulin does (and the spectacular looking stuff that he did against Colorado on Saturday and LA last night), there’s a difference.
I can’t say that Dubnyk would have stopped the Kings winning goal on Tuesday night or that he wouldn’t have let in some other goal. It’s unknowable. The flipside of this is that nobody can say that Dubnyk wouldn’t. Personally, I thought it was a bit of a stinky goal – yes, it was tipped, but Khabibulin had holes open that made him vulnerable – but the extra one goal per hundred that Khabby lets in isn’t going to necessarily look bad. What I do know is that, like clockwork, Khabibulin will let in that extra goal every 100 shots. In fact, over the last three years, it’s been an extra 1.5 goals per 100 shots. In a league like the NHL, where most goals are Big Goals (h/t Matt Fenwick) because most games are close games, odds are that it’s going to cost you at some point and, if you play him more than is absolutely necessary, you’re just piling on the risk. The Oilers made the lower percentage bet and then they lost the game.
Ralph Krueger was asked before the game about the decision to start Khabibulin and explained it this way:
“You know Nikolai, from the start we said ‘Come in and bring energy when he gets the opportunity’ and I think you just have to have been in the building in the last game to understand that decision. It’s not against Dubnyk in any way shape or form. We’re very happy with Devan Dubnyk and his season and the way it’s gone. He had a couple of bizarre games in the way things devolved, like Duchene’s breakaway goal when he loses the puck after we had 15 shots in a row at the other end, you know it didn’t work out well there but Khabby came in with an amazing compete and good energy and let’s roll that today.”
I don’t know if Krueger was dodging the question or what but that sure sounds goobledigokish to me. That said, I’m not really a believer that you can pick which goalie is going to be hot. It’s like timing the market or picking which slot machine is going to pay out. Play the guy who you reasonably expect is the best goalie, subject to the need to keep your backup fresh or to give your starter a break and get on with it. The Oilers didn’t do that last night – they sent out a guy with an extra goal or goal and a half in the chamber for every 100 shots the other team gets. They can’t afford to do it too many times this year.Email Tyler Dellow at firstname.lastname@example.org