Coming off of the lockout of 2004-05, the Blackhawks were looking for a spark on their team. The franchise had finished with a pathetic 20-43-11-8 record in 2003-04, one-point off from the worst record in hockey. They had one playoff appearance in the previous seven seasons. The fan base was becoming lost and the United Center attendance was awful.
Insert Nikolai Khabibulin, the defending Stanley Cup winning goaltender with the Tampa Bay Lightning. As hockey returned, rosters shuffled, and the salary cap era began, Khabibulin signed a 4-year, $27 million contract with the Blackhawks. He joined a team that featured a much younger Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, and Patrick Sharp as well as fellow-signee Adrian Aucoin, Tuomo Ruutu, Rene Bourque, Radim Vrabata, Matthew Barnaby, Kyle Calder, and Mark Bell.
Khabibulin did not live up to the Cup-winning legacy he brought with him to Chicago his first year. He posted an .886 save percentage and a 3.35 goals against average in 50 games with the ‘Hawks. The team struggled to a 26-43-13 record. But each year after his first, both Khabibulin and the Blackhawks progressed. The “Bulin Wall” increased his save percentage every year, moving up to .902%, .909%, and finally .919% in the 2008-09 season. His GAA was 2.33 during the final season of his contract.
The up-and-coming Blackhawks made the playoffs for the first time since 2001-02 in Khabibulin’s final season, but his numbers were not what lead the ‘Hawks to the Western Conference Final. In the 15 postseason games Khabibulin started, he averaged 2.93 goals against and an .898 save percentage.
More from Analysis
- Blackhawks: Three Noticeable Improvements in Comeback Win vs Blues
- Blackhawks: Key Takeaways from 3-2 win over the Blues
- Blackhawks: Grading Connor Murphy and a position comparison
- Blackhawks: Shuffling the lines to try and spark offense at 5 on 5
- These Lineup Changes could Solve the Blackhawks’ Scoring Problem
The ‘Hawks were eliminated by the Detroit Red Wings in five games in that third-round series and decided they would move forward in a different direction. This ended up being Chicago hoping for Cristobal Huet to be the answer (he wasn’t), until Antti Niemi became the goaltending staple for the team the following year. Khabibulin, meanwhile, left in free agency and signed a 4-year, $15 million deal with the Edmonton Oilers.
With the Oilers, Khabibulin averaged a .903 save percentage and an even 3.00 goals against average in the 4 years he played in Edmonton. In his final year, the shortened 2012-13 season, Khabibulin backed up Devan Dubnyk and only started in 11 of the teams 48 games. But as a backup, Nikolai had his strongest stats with the team. He averaged a strong 2.54 goals against and posted a .923 save percentage.
Looking for a backup for Corey Crawford after Ray Emery left in free agency, the Blackhawks signed the 41-year-old goalie to a one-year, $1.7 million contract. Seeing his strong numbers behind Dubnyk in Edmonton gave the ‘Hawks the impression that he could serve as a strong backup to their franchise goaltender. Does any of this seem foreign to you? Well, you may have blinked and completely missed his second stint in Chicago.
Khabibulin appeared in only four games in the 2013-14 season. He gave up 8 goals on 44 shots in his first two contests returning to the team, both of which playing the entire game. In his third start, Nikolai surrendered 4 goals on 22 shots in the first 31 minutes of the game before being relieved by Corey Crawford. In the final game of his second-stint, and of his career, the net-minder gave up 2 goals on 8 shots before injuring his hip 15 minutes into the game making a butterfly save.
While you certainly never want to see a player’s season or career end with you, it is no mistaking that the .811 save percentage Khabibulin achieved in his return to Chicago was not what you are looking for in a goalie. Injured or not, the likelihood is Khabibulin was not going to see much more action even if he was still physically capable to play for the ‘Hawks. The team survived with Antti Raanta becoming a strong backup option for the team, but there is no denying the Nikolai Khabibulin second-run experiment was a total failure in Chicago.