Does Nikolai Khabibulin's Hot Start Mean He'll Be Good All Season?

Jonathan Willis
October 26 2011 04:17PM

Nikolai Khabibulin has had a superb start to the 2011-12 NHL season. After a year where he imploded badly, allowing Devan Dubnyk to steal the starting job later in the season, he appears to be back at the height of his powers.

Prior to the veteran goaltender stopping 35 of 37 shots against the powerhouse Vancouver Canucks, Oilersnation’s own Robin Brownlee took the time to praise Khabibulin’s performance:

Those who scoff Nikolai Khabibulin's .969 saves-percentage through his first four games isn't sustainable are selling him short. Of course it isn't sustainable. So what? While I count myself among those who doubted Khabibulin could rebound from a 2010-11 campaign in which he had a pitiful .890 saves percentage, he has so far SIUTBOHC. He has been outstanding with the minutes he's been given and deserves credit. Will it last? Not like this. Again, so what? If he comes in at something around .910 when this season is in the books, that would represent a pretty decent comeback season, no?

Brownlee is correct on a couple of things here. Khabibulin has been outstanding, and he does deserve credit for his hot start. And, if he can finish the year around the 0.910 SV% mark, it would represent a pretty phenomenal comeback – on par with some of the greatest goaltending comebacks in the last two decades.

When I read that, I started wondering something: how common is it for a bad goalie (i.e. a gaolie who finishes the year with a sub-0.900 SV%) to have a five-game stretch like Khabibulin is having right now? In short, can we be confident that Khabibulin is going to have a strong year because of this phenomenal start?

Here are 10 of the league’s worst goaltenders from last season. I’ve taken their best 4+ game stretches from the year, and calculated the save percentage over that span, placing it alongside their save percentage over the season as a whole:

Player Span Short SV% Overall SV%
Mike Smith 7 games 0.944 0.899
Dan Ellis 4 games 0.971 0.898
Marty Turco 4 games 0.944 0.898
Curtis McElhinney 4 games 0.943 0.897
Antero Niittymaki 7 games 0.940 0.896
Peter Budaj 5 games 0.948 0.895
Brian Elliott 5 games 0.955 0.893
Jonas Gustavsson 4 games 0.959 0.890
Nikolai Khabibulin 4 games 0.957 0.890
Rick DiPietro 4 games 0.945 0.886

It goes without saying that good goalies can put together a solid streak of play, but it’s interesting to note how many bad goaltenders are capable of doing the same thing. It makes sense; players don’t keep getting games if they get shelled every time the coach sends them out.

It also makes sense when we recall that Brian Boucher set the modern era record for consecutive shutouts in 2003-04 as part of a larger streak. Those five shutouts in a row are what tend to get remembered, but Boucher was good for almost three months straight. From November 14, 2003 to January 24, 2004, Boucher played 17 games, collecting just two losses over that span and putting up a 0.948 SV%. He went 2-17-4 in games outside that stretch, and finished the year with an overall save percentage of 0.906.

Because virtually any NHL goalie is capable of putting together a strong stretch of games, the fear with Khabibulin isn’t that he regresses – we know that he will and that it’s just a matter of time. The fear is that this torrid start isn’t the kick-off of a strong season, but rather a momentary blip before poor play sets in.

It would be great to see Khabibulin come back around the 0.910 SV% mark; that kind of performance over a full season would be a huge boon to both the player and the team. Unfortunately, it’s still too early to pencil him in for that kind of record, given what his post-lockout numbers look like.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#51 Randy
October 27 2011, 11:18AM
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Let's be honest here. Nobody except Khabby thought he would start this strong. Hell, even his coach didn't put him in opening night. The smart money says outside of Quick and maybe Lehtonen none of the goalies in the top 10 today in GAA or save % are likely to be on that list in April. The point is, just like Nugent-Hopkins it's a good early season story and rather than snearing at it we should appreciate the effort and enjoy it while we can.

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#52 Romulus' Apotheosis
October 27 2011, 11:20AM
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MattL wrote:

Khabby looked lights out in the first game last season vs. Flamers. I blame the coaching staff for continually over-working the guy. Since he went to Chicago, he's played best when he's splitting time evenly with a co-number one keeper.

Once they start running him out for 3 of 4 games, he'll either get hurt, or his game will drop off. Figure it out, coaches.

On that note, any idea who goes tonight? I'm guess Dub. but Renney seems to make a few counterintuitive moves.

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#53 Matt Henderson
October 27 2011, 11:21AM
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@Romulus' Apotheosis

Twitter feed is telling me Khabby today and Dun tomorrow

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#54 Romulus' Apotheosis
October 27 2011, 12:25PM
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@Matt Henderson

Thanks for the tip. I gather they went that way because they figure Caps deserve our hot Goalie. Otherwise, I imagine they'd reverse the order and give Khabbie another day's rest.

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#55 Mr DeBakey
October 27 2011, 01:01PM
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"Could it be that the sub .900 save% was the anomoly?"

-Khabi's Save % last 6 seasons: 0.886 0.902 0.909 0.919 0.909 0.890

"Better yet, could it be that save % is a bad measure of the quality of a goaltender particularly on a bad team?" -Should we throw out Dubnyk's .916 from last year?

"The Jordan Eberle #7 ranking is also inexcusable." -And frickin Pilick 8th! What gives!

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#56 Dog Train
October 27 2011, 02:43PM
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Let's just enjoy it for what it is before we get all down on Khabby. Goaltenders are up and down but mentally he is in a better place than he was a year ago. We will not get to the playoffs on the back of one goaltender. That's where Dubnyk comes into play. If Khabby can give us 40 to 50 solid games this season, then we have a chance.

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#57 TigerUnderGlass
October 27 2011, 03:52PM
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FastOil wrote:

OB1 and Tiger:

Khabi has ability, perhaps he's just feeling healthier than he has over the last few years. Like how you are more energetic and stronger after a really good sleep.

No, that isn't the kind of difference I'm talking about. I don't even necessarily mean he looks better, just different. As a rule the way people move doesn't change based on something like that...they may seem to have more spring in their step, but their step looks the same.

This isn't something I pointed out to explain his good start, it's just something that seems odd. The two things may be unrelated.

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