by PuckStopsHere on 11/20/08 at 03:46 PM ET
After the lockout, in 2005 the Chicago Blackhawks thought they had the solution to their goaltending. They signed reigning Stanley Cup winning goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin to a four year $27 million contract. The problem was Khabibulin was never able to maintain that success in Chicago. In fact, it wasn’t too long after the signing that I wrote that he had been the worst free agent signing of the off season. Khabibulin never got back into his previous form and Chicago stuck with him. The Blackhawks missed the playoffs for the first three years of the deal.
This summer, the Blackhawks decided to make another splash into the free agent market. Their fortunes looked good due to the rise of a talented young core of players including Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith. The Blackhawks signed the top available free agent goalie in Cristobal Huet from the Washington Capitals. They signed him to a four year deal worth a little over $22.5 million and expected him to be their starter.
With Huet and Khabibulin in place, Chicago would have the most expensive goaltending tandem in the NHL. Although a trade of Khabibulin seemed likely, Chicago management denied such a move was imminent (you reduce your potential return if everyone knows you are looking for a trade). In training camp, rookie Antti Niemi played well enough that he looked ready to assume the backup goalie role. He has played very well so far in the AHL putting up a 1.63 goals against average and a .943 saves percentage in Rockford. The Blackhawks tried to make room for him by waiving Khabibulin. Nobody took him and his large salary (even on re-entry waivers). Chicago even tried to peddle a deal to send Khabibulin to the KHL, but again nobody too him on.
Chicago began the season with Huet and Khabibulin as their goalies. Huet played the first couple of games, but was not an instant star, so Khabibulin got a chance. Khabibulin quickly established himself as the Chicago number one goalie - at least so far this season. He has a 2.33 GAA and a .924 saves percentage with a 5-1-4 record. For comparison, Huet has a 2.95 GAA, .900 saves percentage and a 3-3-1 record. While Huet has not played poorly - and likely when given the chance will have a good season - Khabibulin has been better. Nikolai Khabibulin is having the kind of season that might wind him up in the All Star Game.
What is Chicago to do? They cannot trade Khabibulin without giving him away and likely taking on a significant salary in return. He is playing too well for that to be a logical move. Giving up on Huet would be a bad move. He would also be hard to move given his contract. Sending him to the minors would save on salary cap space, but it would likely poison Huet against his new team. Likely they will need solid goaltending from him at some point in the stretch run, but they would have trouble getting it. Huet would be forced to clear re-entry waivers to rejoin the NHL and it is quite possible they would lose him.
In the near term, Chicago will have an expensive goaltending tandem. As long as Khabibulin plays this much better than Huet, it makes sense to keep him around. Later in the season (around the trade deadline) he might become moveable, but right now there is no sensible goaltending move available.
Chicago has committed a lot of salary cap room to their goaltenders. They would like to give Antti Neimi an NHL shot and free up some cap space that could be used on further talent (rumors have them interested in Michael Nylander of Washington). There is no opportunity for that. Khabilbulin’s good play is a positive, but it has complicated the goaltending situation in Chicago.
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