Kukla's Korner Hockey
by Jon Jordan on 12/10/10 at 01:16 PM ET
Tonight in Edmonton, the Tampa Bay Lightning will face an old friend, as goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin will man the Oiler nets.
Sadly, the 37-year-old Khabibulin still has to be looked at as Tampa Bay’s last consistent, go-to netminder. “The ‘Bulin Wall” was a force for the Lightning during his time in Tampa, with a sturdy 2.39 goals against average and .917 save percentage in 192 games from 2000-2004. These are pre-lockout numbers, yes, but his performance in the current, more inflated era – 2.87/.903 – would still best just about every other Bolts goaltender since his departure after the Stanley Cup season of 2003-04. Tampa Bay has tried 14 different goalies between the pipes in that time, with largely underwhelming results.
Mike Smith has played more than any other Bolts goaltender since Khabibulin, with 111 games in a Lightning uniform, and his 2.93 goals against and .902 save percentage are among the better numbers from those that have seen significant time in the Tampa crease. But his time with the Lightning is a story of two halves: The first, from his acquisition at the 2008 trade deadline in the deal that saw Brad Richards off to Dallas, through the end of the 2008-09 season, where Smith allowed 2.66 goals per in 54 games and posted a .911 save percentage and the second, in the 57 games since, where those numbers have changed dramatically, to 3.21/.893. The oddest part of Smith’s struggles has been the fact that the team has actually improved where it matters, in the standings, as his numbers have gone up. Unfortunately, though, he simply hasn’t been the same since concussion woes in ’08-’09 – disturbing truth, really, since the kind of performances Smith put on early in his Lightning career, paired with the improvement shown in other areas for the club would be a lethal combination for opponents.
Johan Holmqvist, who went to Dallas in the Smith/Richards deal, has played the second-highest game total in goal (93) in the post-Khabibulin era for Tampa and posted an identical 2.93 G.A.A. to Smith’s, with a less-efficient save percentage of .892. Holmqvist moved on to Europe after his brief time with the Stars.
There was the much-maligned Marc Denis, 3.32/.879 in 54 games, who drove then-coach John Tortorella crazy and Khabibulin’s backup, John Grahame, who did little to make Bolts fans forget about their Cup hero in goal at 3.06/.889 in the 57 games he played after 2003-2004. And Karri Ramo, first summoned as the team hoped for a spark from fresh goaltending blood during the Denis/Holmqvist era, fared no better in 48 career games in Tampa (3.34/.895). Veteran Sean Burke (2.80/.895 in 35) actually wasn’t half-bad in his second-to-last NHL season but, at 39 in 2005-2006, was no long-term solution.
Gerald Coleman, Brian Eklund, Riku Helenius, Olie Kolzig and Dustin Tokarski (maybe an answer down the road) have all also had a game or two (or eight, in Kolzig’s case) in recent years.
The best of the lot for Tampa, statistically, since Nik Khabibulin left town, was Antero Niittymaki, brought in to push Smith last year, who actually supplanted him as Tampa’s number one and did so in fine fashion (2.87/.909 in 49 appearances). Niittymaki was allowed to walk as a free agent by the Lightning, who went with Dan Ellis during free agency instead and has gone on to even better numbers (2.43/.910) in San Jose this season.
As for Ellis, though it’s just a small sample, 3.22 and .880 in 18 games so far surely is not what he or the team envisioned upon his arrival. Ellis’ performance alongside Smith’s this year (3.57/.870) gives the Lightning the dubious distinction of yielding the highest goal total to this point in the entire National Hockey League (98).
And yet the team is still 15-10-3, second in the division and currently in playoff position in the Eastern Conference. You figure it out.
Want an interesting comparable for Ellis’ Lightning career so far? How about Mike McKenna, who, in 15 games in 2008-2009, posted the modest numbers of 3.56/.887? Sure, the goals-against number is far from what any goalie (or organization) wants to see but, let’s remember, that was an awful hockey team. And, with a swiss cheese defense in front of him, allowing roughly five more shots per game than the Bolts have this year for Ellis, McKenna’s save percentage was higher.
He now toils in the New Jersey Devils organization, mostly with AHL Albany after some spot duty with the big club in recent weeks with Martin Brodeur’s injury.
And Ellis, Smith and the Lightning tread on, looking for answers and increased efficiency in net, yet winning, still, significantly more often than not.
It’ll be past versus present in Edmonton tonight, with Khabibulin at one end of the rink and Ellis at the other and you can’t blame Lightning fans for any nostalgia that might creep into their head during the game.
But don’t anybody get any crazy ideas out there, with the Oilers 15th in the Western Conference and not expected to make any playoff push down the stretch. Again, your old pal Nik is now, well, old and still has two years left on a $3.75-million dollar contract after this season.
The truth is, the Bolts probably have little choice but to ride it out with Ellis and Smith and sound reasonably intent on doing so with as much patience as possible. Besides, while the numbers aren’t pretty, they’re winning, which is all that really matters.
That’s more than can be said for recent seasons and will remain a buffer for any goaltending concerns, so long as it continues.
Still, moving forward, it has to get better and, looking back, Lightning fans will be reminded tonight of when it once was.
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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.
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