The Case for Hiring Khabibulin

In a thread below respected blogger speeds asked me a question about Nikolai Khabibulin and my support of his signing.

Quoting speeds: “What made you change your stance here, LT? I can remember the topic of Biron at 9 mil over 3 years coming up in the July 1st thread, and you mentioning that would be crazy. Is this not far “crazier” in your mind?”

I gave Michael a quick explanation last night, but felt a need to write a more coherent response this morning (plus can’t sleep anyway).

Earlier in the off-season, I gave my opinon about how the Oilers summer would go if they let me behind the wheel. My thoughts and various responses are here and detail my preference to replace Roloson AND Deslauriers with Jaroslav Halak and a veteran backup (I chose Jason LaBarbara in the model, now I’d chase Biron).

When the Oilers signed Khabibulin, it was certainly not my first choice as a fan. Those dollars could have been used up front on a free agent where there are a lot of question marks, or perhaps even better saved for a time in the summer (like now) when teams are drowning in dollars and cannot make a move without a salary dump.

So I began looking at reasons why the Oilers would have made this decision. At this blog and others everyone was well aware of the plethora of good goaltenders available through free agency this summer and it was completely reasonable to believe the Oilers could get a bargain who would also be more than adequate. However, as a new hire I’m not certain Tambellini would choose starting goaltender as the position he’d like to get ballsy on, especially with the new head coach probably expressing a strong desire for a proven starter.

I think Steve Tambellini sat down with Pat Quinn and Tom Renney and they made a list of off-season priorities. Right at the top was goaltending. I believe Tambellini said after the signing that the formet Jet was right at the top of their list but they weren’t sure he was going to come along. Remember, Khabibulin was coming off a successful season and a famous post-season so likely had increased value despite the warts (a very poor delivery on wins for the dollars Chicago spent over the last few seasons). It’s also true that Khabibulin’s SP (.919) was good for a 6th place tie league-wide in 2008-09. Further, the was no guarantee that there would be a Marty Biron standing at the end of this process, and in fact the Islanders ended up being a surprise free agent player at the goalie position. If a team like Philadelphia had suddenly entered the picture, or Chicago pushed harder to bring Khabibulin back, the Oilers could easily have been on the outside looking in July 1 (in terms of a proven starter, which was clearly the priority).

The contract (a long one for significant dollars) has been universally panned by the blogosphere. I’m not certain it’s the doom contract some are claiming, it seems to me the Oilers could trade the contract if Khabibulin is injured long term or retires. A team needing to get to the cap floor would no doubt have use for this type of contract, and although the Oilers may need to give up an additional asset at that time we may be going overboard in terms of the almost universal distaste for the contract.

The decision about what goalie to sign offers us major insight into the organization’s new hires (Tambellini, Quinn and Renney). It runs counter to Ken Holland’s first major move as General Manager of the Detroit Red Wings. The club had just won the 1997 Stanley and were having trouble signing Mike Vernon. Holland dealt him to San Jose for picks and elevated Chris Osgood to a starting role for the following season and they won the Stanley again with Osgood playing all but one of the playoff minutes.

Holland had a team that had just come off a Stanley and were loaded. Tambellini isn’t in the same position with this hockey club. I think there is a reasonable case to be made here that with the circumstances as they are, Tambellini was justified in taking what he believed to be the safest hire.

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