The debate rages on. Is Khabibulin going to bounce back next season, or will he continue to be a sub-par goaltender who ends his career with a fizzle? It turns out that it doesn't really matter. Regardless of the answer to that question, the one near-certainty is that Nikolai Khabibulin won't be with the Oilers for longer than the next two years. That means that a long term solution is needed between the pipes.
There were rumblings that the Oilers were in on the race for free agent goalie Tomas Vokoun this off season before he signed with Washington. If true, it suggests that the organization is not concerned with adding a goaltender through free agency and the implications for Khabibulin. If a third goalie enters the fold, it probably won't be Devan Dubnyk who goes down to Oklahoma City. That leaves old Nik as the odd man out.
Next July 1st Vokoun will be up for grabs again, but he'll also be seeking a long-term deal at age 36. If that sounds painfully familiar, it's because that is the story of Khabibulin as well. Granted, Vokoun has been solid over the past several seasons, but he's still not a long term solution. Nashville's Pekka Rinne is set to become an Unrestricted Free Agent next July as well, assuming that the Predators don't sign him to an extension before then. Rinne is the type of goalie that could be a real answer for the Oilers.
The 28 year old currently carries a cap hit of $3.4 million, and to sign him would probably take a raise of at least one to two million dollars. This past year he was second in the league in save percentage at .930 and third in goals against average with 2.12. Over his career, which spans 177 games, Rinne has posted a .920 SV% and 2.33 GAA. The fact that Rinne will be just 29 at the time of next year's free agent frenzy means that his team will still get a lot of quality mileage out of him.
It's a rare opportunity for the Oilers because Rinne fits perfectly into the age bracket that will allow the team to stay together for a long time. Furthermore, when Nikolai Khabibulin comes off the books, $3.75 million in cap space will open up. If the Oilers signed Rinne to a contract with a cap hit of around $5 million, it would mean spending just $1.25 million more for a tremendous goaltending upgrade and would still leave plenty of flexibility to sign the wunderkids to new deals.
The inevitable question is what the Oilers do with Devan Dubnyk. Dubnyk is an RFA after next season, and he will probably want a bump from the $800,000 salary he is bringing in now. The Oilers should still be able to get a deal done without breaking the bank.
There's certainly plenty to like about Dubnyk, but he only has 54 NHL games under his belt at this point. Throwing him into the fire of the starting job might not be the best thing for him, or for the team. Signing Rinne - or any veteran goaltender for that matter - doesn't mean Dubnyk isn't part of the team's future plans; it simply cements the position going forward. The Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins both went into the playoffs with number one and one-A goalies. While the one-A's didn't much effect the outcome, it was a nice luxury to have during the regular season and also the playoffs where anything can happen.
***After next season the Oilers should have the clout around the league to be able to land the bigger fish in free agency. It will be impossible to ignore all the up-and-coming talent on the team. If the Oilers offer competitive money, term and a chance to win, then there's no reason that a player like Rinne wouldn't take an offer seriously.
It may be a hard pill for Darryl Katz to pay Khabibulin $3.75 million to play for the AHL team in the last year of his deal, but the owner has shown a willingness to open the check book to help the team win. His going along with how Tambellini handled Sheldon Souray shows that Katz understands the big picture regardless of the cost, especially considering that it ended in a buyout anyway. If the Oilers have a chance to make their goaltending rock solid for the next 4-6 years by signing Rinne and Dubnyk, it seems unlikely that Katz would be opposed to burying Khabibulin on the farm. One thing is for sure: the fans wouldn't mind in the least; which speaks volumes about the Oilers' situation in goal.
It may be next July that the situation finally gets rectified.