For Blackhawks Nikolai Khabibulin, it is now or never

Nikolai Khabibulin

Nikolai Khabibulin was brought in to Chicago to be a cheap back-up goaltender. To date, he has not been worth his weight in gold or played like an NHL caliber goalie. If “The Bulin Wall” cannot find a way to piece together a few good spot starts, his days with the Chicago Blackhawks, and in the NHL, could be numbered.

In three starts this season, Nikolai Khabibulin has one win, a 4.73 goals against average, and has stopped 82% of shots he has faced. His most recent start was October 29, and he was pulled in the second period after allowing four goals in less than two periods against a struggling Ottawa Senators club. I attended that game and saw a few eye-opening things with the Russia native.

At the age of 40, Nik is not a spring chicken and it showed in his lack of agility and quickness when there was action around his net. While slowing down is a formality with age, Khabibulin’s ability to adjust looked well beyond his age. He also was quick to get in a prone butterfly position. The butterfly position for a goaltender looks similar to the winged insect in that the arms and legs have the ability to flow freely. It takes great agility to perform in that style. While on the ice, Khabby also appeared to get lost in any sort of confrontation with the puck in play nearby. The whole point of signing the former Edmonton Oiler, Tampa Bay Lightning and Phoenix Coyote was to take advantage of what was left in the tank for around one dozen games. So far, he has failed to offer a safety net for incumbent starter Corey Crawford. As good as Crawford has been, being asked to play upwards of 90% of a team’s games is asking a lot.

Chicago has been playing numerous back-to-back games on the weekends. Chicago plays in 18 games involving no days off in between them, tied for third most in the league.

Are there any goalie options within the Blackhawks system that could be seen as back up options to the back up option? Antti Raanta was signed during the offseason after winning the regular season and playoff MVP in the SM-Liiga in Finland in 2012-13. The 24-year old was sent to Rockford of the American Hockey League to adjust to the American style of play and smaller ice surface. To date, Raanta has a 2.92 GAA and 91 save percentage. In the AHL, it is common for goalies to swap in between periods, as the AHL is a developmental league as much as it is a professional one.

Kent Simpson, 21, is alternating with Raanta at Rockford. This is his first full season in the AHL, and it has been a learning experience. In the seven games he has played, Simpson has saved a notch over 90% of shots faced, and is giving up 3.43 goals per contest.

For the time being, Nikolai Khabibulin has to be play and be given the chance to get on track. During the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, Khabibulin started 11 games, played in 12 and won four contests while stopping 92% of shots on net. His 2.55 goals against was more than respectable for an Oilers team that finished near the bottom of the NHL in all major defensive metrics.

Blackhawks fans: breathe, and do not hold your breath too often the next time Nikolai Khabibulin mans the crease for the home team. He deserved the shot to spot start, and has proven for nearly two decades he can do so.

Follow Jeff on Twitter @jeffrotull44 for more sports and entertainment ramblings. If you play fantasy sports, check out The Fantasy Fix, where Jeff covers your add/drop/watch needs during baseball and hockey season, and does weekly podcasts, as well.

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