Puck Daddy

Puck Daddy chats with Nikolai Khabibulin about great start, Oilers’ young stars, old NHL goalies, Winnipeg and Phoenix

Dmitry Chesnokov
Puck Daddy

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Has there been a more surprising resurgence in the NHL this season than that of Nikolai Khabibulin?

Last year saw the Edmonton Oilers goaltender playing in the shadow of his DUI charges from Feb. 2010, for which he'd eventually spend 15 days in an Arizona detention facility. He played 47 games for the Oilers in 2010-11, going 10-32-4 with an .890 save percentage in an injury-plagued year.

Before this season, it appeared the 38-year-old goalie's status as a No. 1 goaltender was at an end, with 25-year-old former first-rounder Devan Dubnyk ready to take over. But The Bulin Wall has been sturdy in the opening month of the 2011-12 season: He's 4-0-2 with a great 0.97 goals against average and a .965 save percentage, leading the NHL in both numbers after Thursday night's win over the Washington Capitals.

"Going into the season I don't think we had a clear distinction who the No. 1 goaltender would be and who the No. 2 would be," Khabibulin told Puck Daddy this week, prior to the Capitals game. "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."

Coming up, Nikolai Khabibulin on the Oilers' young stars, including Ryan Nugent-Hopkins; Edmonton as a desirable place to play; the future of the Phoenix Coyotes; the return of the Winnipeg Jets; old goalies like Tim Thomas; and whether the NHL protects its netminders.

Q. You were a starter for a very long time. Did it feel strange that you would have to prove yourself a lot again?

KHABIBULIN: I think as a goaltender, as a player, you always have to prove yourself. And of course in this situation it was a little bit difficult because Dubnyk is a pretty good goaltender and he will only get better. But at the same time I am not trying to prove anything to anyone, I am just trying to play my game, show my game and enjoy it. I am trying to play my best game every time and if it turns out great, then it's good. If not, then at least I know that I gave it all I had.

The Oilers has to be one of the youngest teams in the League. What is it like for an older player to be amongst so many young players? Is it difficult to find something in common with them?

The age difference is not a big deal at all.

Also this offseason we added more veterans like Ryan Smyth, Andy Sutton, Eric Belanger. But yes, we didn't have that many veterans last year. It was like a kindergarten in a good way [laughing]. But this year there are more of us, older guys, but it's always easy to find something in common with the younger players. I think they look up to us more but we are all learning from each other.

At the same time when you have so many young players on your team, you just feel rejuvenated, you feel a lot of energy by playing with them. We try to help them as much as we can, and they are helping us whether they know it or not.

Is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins for real? A lot of Canadian media paint him as the next Messiah.

I think he is still getting used to the NHL and there will be more things he will have to get used to. It is very difficult to play in the NHL as a 18 or 19 year old. Of course, if he has a consistent season it will only be great. But I think it is difficult to count on that.

What he has shown in the few games that he has played, and a lot of players who are drafted high usually are very, very good, he surprised me a lot, and he is still surprising me, speaking as a defensive player being a goaltender, he is so good in the defensive zone and playing defense. You can really rely on him in the defensive zone, whereas usually young forwards need to learn how to play in their own zone. He pays a lot of attention to his defensive game, and it is great.

You played on a young Tampa Bay Lightning team that won the Cup. You then played on a young Chicago team that also won the Cup shortly after you left. How is this young Edmonton team compared to the Cup winning Tampa and Chicago teams?

I think you can compare our Edmonton team to the teams you mentioned to some degree. You have to remember that all teams are different. I think the Oilers will have a really strong offense within the next couple of years. We already have a lot of young forwards who are very good, and I know of a few other forwards in our farm club who are also very good and who will play for the first team sooner than we know.

It is similar to what we had in Tampa when I was there — we had good young forwards. It was the same story in Chicago — young offense. So, you can certainly compare our current team to Tampa and Chicago teams I played for in this aspect.

That means that the Oilers are on track to win the Stanley Cup soon.

I think that if everything goes according to plan, if everything is exactly how the organization is envisioning things, then of course there is a great chance to have a good Cup run in the near future.

Why does Edmonton have this notoriety as the city where no one wants to play?

I think this is simply a personal opinion of each individual. Maybe Edmonton is not as big as Los Angeles or New York. Maybe the weather is not the best. Maybe the city doesn't have the biggest selection of places where you can go to have dinner. But on the other hand, when you come to the arena to play, it is always packed, it is always loud. It was this way before I came here and it will be this way after me. The fans are great.

Yes, the weather is cold, but so what? I really like it here in Edmonton.

Don't you miss the playoffs?

Of course I miss the playoffs. Postseason for any athlete, for any player is the time when you always try to prove to yourself, try to prove to others what you and your team are made of. There is nothing better. Playoffs is the most fun part of it all. You are involved in games where every game matters. I do miss the playoffs.

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Were you surprised that the NHL came back to Winnipeg? That city has to mean something special to you.

I was not really surprised because the talk was that the city getting a team were going on for a long time. Hockey is always popular in Canada. But still, look at all of the arenas in Canada. They are all full.

I also think that the exchange rate between American and Canadian dollar is also helping Canadian teams, and it will help Winnipeg a lot. They already have enough people, enough fans to support the team. But it will also help. They really like hockey in Winnipeg. I still remember that.

What can you say about Phoenix? You are connected to the city and Arizona. Is it true that hockey is dying there?  Or there may still be a chance to revive it?

It's a difficult situation that's been going on for some time. I think it is difficult to make people go games, difficult to make people become fans if no one knows if the team will be there next year. And this has been going on not for a few days, but a few years now. And it's not like there is a certainty the team will remain there for 3 or 5 years at least. It's always 'Will the team be there next summer?'

It is difficult to gain support in a situation like this. And also, the area where the arena is located is not helping things and makes things even more difficult. It is located on the outskirts and most of the fans who attended games in downtown Phoenix they live in a different part of town. So the club has to do a lot of work to attract people. At the same time I believe the team can certainly strive there.

As an older goaltender, are you inspired by Tim Thomas' play?  Does he give hope to other older goaltenders?

Of course, when you see an older player, and not necessarily a goaltender like in my case, when you look at other players like Mark Recchi and the way he played for Boston, you look at these guys and think to yourself 'If these guys can do it, why couldn't it be me? Of course I can still do it!' They do inspire.

Are you surprised that lately a lot of goaltenders are run over by forwards? Do you feel the League is doing enough to protect goaltenders?

It doesn't really surprise me because this is the type of hockey being played now, because the quality of goaltending in the League is going up all the time. That's why forwards have to find new creative ways of scoring goals. That's why I know that in most clubs, including ours, the concentration is on shooting the puck and driving the net for the rebound.

When you are driving the net in search of a rebound, or you are parked in front of the net blocking goaltender's view, and all of these things happen very close to the net, a contact with a goaltender is almost a certainty even if you try your best to avoid it.

Do you agree that the position of "Franchise Goaltender" is dying out?

I wouldn't agree with that. If you take Tim Thomas, for example, he played most of the games during the regular season and the playoffs. It's not like the Bruins were rotating their goaltenders every game or every other game. I think that in most cases when teams have a clearly good goaltender, that team will still have an advantage in any case. Of course there are different scenarios possible, but in most cases a team with such a goaltender would have an advantage.

Do you think the League and the NHLPA will be able to agree on the new CBA to avoid a lockout? And what are players expecting from the new CBA?

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It is very difficult to say anything on this topic at this time. I haven't really heard anything on what the League may ask for or what we may ask for. It's tough to say. I haven't looked so far ahead. And I haven't heard enough to form an opinion.

How much gas is left in your tanks to keep playing?

The time came this year when I decided not to look too far ahead. I am really trying to enjoy every moment, every day realizing that I am playing in the NHL. I am trying to play the best I can. And we will see what happens then. I am not making any plans as far as what happens when my contract runs out. I am trying not to look too far ahead, I am trying to focus on the present, on today, on tomorrow, but not that much further ahead.

You mentioned that the Oilers have a great chance for a Cup run in the next few years if everything goes according to plan. Do you think you will see it happen playing for the Oilers?

I think it will depend on how we are going to grow as a team. And I am not talking about rookies or second year players and how they will progress individually. I am talking about us growing together as a team. Let's see what happens. But we are certainly on the right track. Let's see what happens this year and if we can make the playoffs and it will be great. I don't know how realistic it is. But we are certainly trying to do everything to achieve that.

I think it is obvious to anyone how everyone on the team is trying to play their best. But I don't know if I am going to be with the team when everything happens. I don't know how long it is all going to take. But I am sure we have the players who can reach that goal. Maybe not now, but in two or three years.

Did you consider finishing your career where you started it in Russia?

I thought you were going to say in Winnipeg! I don't know. I haven't thought about it yet. As I mentioned before, I am not looking that far ahead. When the contract runs out then we will see. But I don't know right now.

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