The problem? Above average for a 36 to 39 year old still isn't good enough to compete in today's NHL.
Nikolai Khabibulin was one of those prized stars who actually agreed to sign in Edmonton. And, as his star fades, we're all left to realize why a former Stanley Cup Champion netminder would agree to sign with a team as poorly regarded as our beloved Oilers.
The name, the reputation, and a deep playoff run with Chicago in 2009 came together with the expiration of Dwayne Roloson's contract at exactly the wrong time for the Oilers. Roloson's strong play despite his advanced years didn't help either. Why not have a 36 year old starting goalie? After all, Roli was solid at 39 years old in 2008-09 and started 36 straight games down the stretch.
In Khabibulin's first season in Edmonton he started the year at 36 years of age and turned 37 on January 13th, part way through the year. In an injury-shortened 18 game season he posted a 0.909 save percentage with the Oilers. That number is 8th-best all time among goalies who were 37 years old on February 1st of a given season. Fifteen other goalies had worse save percentages at around the same age, including recent notables like Chris Osgood and Olaf Kolzig.
The trouble is that NHL average save percentage for the 2009-10 season was 0.911. A 0.909 save percentage put Khabibulin tied for 40th in the league.
Of all goalies in history who were 38 years old on February 1st, the best save percentage recorded was that of Ed Belfour at 0.918 in 59 games with Toronto. Khabibulin had a down year by the standard of his age group in his second year as an Oiler, posting a paltry 0.890 Sv%. That's the fourth-worst from a player his age. NHL average save percentage that year (2010-11) was 0.913, so the Bulin Wall was a long way from giving his team a chance to win. Considering all of his off ice issues and coming off a major surgery, he had some disadvantages that year.
Surely things would pick up for him, and they did.
In 2011-12, Nikolai Khabibulin posted the second-best save percentage in his age group on record, beating out some greats like Martin Brodeur, Dominik Hasek and Curtis Joseph. Anyone who watches the Oilers knows that his 0.910 Sv% is propped up but a stellar early season run, but in the end the final number is what counts. Ironically, only Dwayne Roloson's last year as an Oiler was better out of all goalies who were 39 on February 1st.
What this means is that the Oilers got essentially the best case scenario out of the Khabibulin signing in 2011-12, and it still wasn't enough for the team to rely on him as a starter. NHL average save percentage this past regular season was 0.914, and Khabibulin's 0.910 mark was tied for 52nd out of all goalies who made at least one appearance.
Nikolai Khabibulin's case is a classic reason to sign a player based on what he will do for you, and not what he has done for others. Of course players have varying levels of ability and longevity, but the fact is that very few goalies even play beyond their 37th birthdays, let alone at a high level. Oilers management should have known or at least guessed at the best they could reasonably expect from a player his age.
Khabibulin may still have enough game in him to start 20 times or so over the course of a season and perform well enough to give his team a chance, but at $3.75 million per year he isn't paid like a backup. Amazingly, that's both $3.75 million in cap hit and actual salary. The Oilers didn't gradually reduce his pay in anticipation of his play declining at 40 years old. He was still supposed to be the starting goalie in the last year of his deal.
It's a familiar refrain, but let's hope the lesson has been learned.