Is Khabby rebound ready?

DEREK VAN DIEST, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:59 AM ET

The Edmonton Oilers put a lot of faith in Nikolai Khabibulin last season.

The club decided against re-signing their most valuable player from the previous year in Dwayne Roloson, and instead brought in Khabibulin to backstop them in goal.

Things didn’t work out as planned.

The former Stanley Cup winner with the Tampa Bay Lightning lasted just 18 games with the Oilers before his back gave out, bringing a premature end to his season.

“Being healthy this season, you’re never able to predict anything, but hopefully I’ll be able to go without injuries and be able to play a full season,” Khabibulin said. “That would be exciting for me and I still believe in what I can do.

“I thought last year, up to the point where I got injured, I thought I played fairly well and hopefully I can continue to do that.”

Early assistance

Khabibulin posted a 7-9-2 record with the Oilers last season with a 3.03 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage.

He was one of the reasons the team got off to a good early start, masking some of the deficiencies that would eventually reveal themselves as the club tumbled towards its first-ever last-place finish.

With his back having been surgically repaired, the Oilers are counting on the Russian native to have a bounce-back season.

“Goaltending is always big,” said Oilers head coach Tom Renney. “But with a young team trying to find its way, and secure wins properly, you have to have that type of goaltending, because every night won’t necessarily be a masterpiece.

“We need strong goaltending from whoever is between the pipes, but certainly Nikolai has proven himself at this level to be one of the best there is.”

The Oilers are hoping Khabibulin can play in the neighbourhood of 60 games this season. It’s a number the 37-year-old has consistently flirted with throughout his career.

In Tampa Bay, Khabibulin played 55 regular-season games before backstopping the Lightning to the Stanley Cup title in 2004.

“My back feels pretty good, it passed all the tests and overall, it’s good,” Khabibulin said. “I’m really happy with how the recovery has gone.

“I don’t see there being any problems with it when I get on the ice and the season starts.”

Perhaps a bigger concern for Khabibulin heading into the year are legal issues that may force the goaltender to leave at some point during the season.

Khabibulin was convicted of extreme drunk driving by an Arizona court, and he has launched an appeal.

Quick exit?

The appeals process leaves the conviction hanging in the balance and opens the possibility of the goaltender having to eventually serve out his 30-day sentence.

“We’re not even thinking about that,” Renney said. “We’re at the front end of the process here and so is he. During the season, we’ll deal with anything that comes our way, no matter what it is. At some point and time, that may or may not be one of those things.”

Until then, the Oilers are hoping Khabibulin fits in well with the young lineup the team expects to ice this season.

The veteran goaltender is twice as old as some of his teammates.

“I guess I’m going to have to shave every day so I don’t look as old,” he said. “My daughter just turned 18 a little while ago, so it’s a little scary.”

derek.vandiest@sunmedia.ca


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