Happy 'Bulin feeling good

DEREK VAN DIEST, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:52 AM ET

Considering the guy he's replacing was the Edmonton Oilers' best player last season, Nikolai Khabibulin has big pads to fill.

Yet with a resume that includes a Stanley Cup championship, two Olympic medals and a lifetime save percentage hovering over .900, if anyone could replace Dwayne Roloson, it's the man referred to as the 'Bulin Wall.

Khabibulin signed a four-year $15-million contract with the Oilers on Wednesday, just a few hours after Roloson bolted to the New York Islanders.

"It happened very quick," Khabibulin said yesterday. "Within an hour or an hour and a half (of free agency) my agent called me and told me Edmonton had offered us this deal. We thought about it a little bit and we decided to go with it."

At 36, the native of Sverdlovsk, Russia, is no spring chicken. But the four-time NHL all-star is coming off a strong season with the Chicago Blackhawks, where, similar to Roloson, he fought to earn his starting job back.

Khabibulin ended the season posting a 25-8-7 record, with a 2.33 goals against average and .919 save percentage. He also out-duelled both Miikka Kiprusoff and Roberto Luongo in the playoffs as the Blackhawks made it to the Western Conference final before bowing out to the Detroit Red Wings.

"I feel really good, because I think in the last seven or eight years I've really starting taking care of my body and working out a lot in the summer," Khabibulin said. "I feel pretty good and I think there are a lot of goalies, especially lately, that have been playing into their 40s. Compared to them, I'm still pretty young.

"I feel very confident that I still have a lot of years left in me and I'm really looking forward to it."

Originally drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in 1992, Khabibulin moved with the team to Phoenix, where he still spends his summers. Traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2001, he backstopped that franchise to the 2004 title, becoming the first Russian goaltender to win the Stanley Cup.

Khabibulin signed a four-year contract with the Blackhawks following the lockout, where he struggled early on.

At the start of this season, he was placed on waivers as the Blackhawks brought in Cristobal Huet to be their starter. However, Khabibulin was able to regain the top spot as Huet struggled.

"I learned quite a bit from that experience," Khabibulin said. "You have to fight no matter what. I think guys in the locker-room respect that. I think I've developed more character in the last year because I was constantly fighting for playing time. I think that's the most important thing.

"Last year wasn't a perfect situation for both of us. But I think both of us handled the situation pretty well and I can't really say anything bad about it."

Fighting for playing time is not expected to be an issue with the Oilers.

Khabibulin will head into the year as the team's designated starter with Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers once again taking a backup role.

It's unlikely, however, Khabibulin will take on as big a workload as Roloson did towards the end of last season.

"I like to carry the load and play a lot of games," Khabibulin said. "I think if I can play 60 games at a high level, I think that will be pretty good."

Either way, the Oilers are hoping the veteran and their sophomore goaltender provide a solid tandem this upcoming season.

"I haven't had a bad relationship with any goalies I've played with throughout my career," Khabibulin said. "I usually discuss a lot of things with the goalies I've played with on other teams. We try to help each other, and probably in this case, I'll have to help a little more, because he is a young guy.

"I haven't met him yet, but I'm looking forward to meeting him and helping him out."


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