Cross Checks: Nikolay Khabibulin

1. Real test coming for the Bulin Wall and young Oilers


In a season of surprise, no surprise has been bigger than the play of the Edmonton Oilers. From dead last in the standings the past two years and among the worst, statistically speaking, over that time period, the Oilers have surged to a 7-2-2 start that puts them in a tie for first in the Western Conference as of Wednesday morning. They are riding a five-game winning streak and lead the league in goaltending thanks to a renaissance start from Nikolai Khabibulin. They rank fourth on the penalty kill and are a respectable 12th on the power play, having scored five times with the man advantage in the past three games. So life is good for the Oilers. But (and you knew that was coming, didn’t you?) the next four weeks are going to say an awful lot about this young team and whether this is all a mirage or the foundation of something special.

Starting Thursday in Los Angeles, the Oilers will play 10 of their next 12 on the road.

“That’s definitely going to be a benchmark. It’s going to be a good measuring stick for us,” head coach Tom Renney told ESPN.com this week.

Lots of different things are going to come into play over this period of time away from the Rexall Place.

Renney won’t be able to get the favorable matchups he has at home, especially when it comes to his top young line of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, last year’s first overall draft pick, Taylor Hall, the 2010 first overall pick and Jordan Eberle. There will be the question of travel fatigue on his young team, the inherent issues of crowd noise and all the other things that can make extended road trips onerous.

Renney’s not going to be hiding his young players and the opportunity, not to mention the need for them to continue to contribute while away from home.

“We need to see what they can do,” Renney said.

And then there’s the element of keeping his squad grounded. After so much losing, Renney will have to ensure that his team doesn’t get ahead of itself and simply expect the wins to keep coming.

“We’re trying to create an identity here,” Renney said.

That means playing the same way night in and night out.

Apart from perhaps five periods, Renney said he’s been happy with what he’s seen thus far in terms of his team’s consistency.

He’s gotten production from his skilled youngsters and to balance that, veterans Ryan Smyth and Shawn Horcoff have combined for seven goals and 10 assists in 11 games for the Oilers.
There is a symbiotic relationship between those veterans and the young core of the team, Renney said, with both groups feeding off the other.

Over the next three weeks, the hockey world is going to find out, in Renney’s words, whether what we’ve seen through the first month of the season is fool’s gold or the real thing. Perhaps as important, the Oilers will start to find that out themselves.


2. Smith everything and more for the Yotes


Here was the offseason scouting report on the Phoenix Coyotes from most prognosticators: no Ilya Bryzgalov -- desert road kill.

The fact the Coyotes opted to sign netminder Mike Smith out of Tampa to compete for the No. 1 job with Jason Labarbera contributed to the overall consensus that the Yotes wouldn’t be able to replicate their surprising run to the playoffs the past two years, when Bryzgalov had been a rock between the pipes.

Well, just for fun let’s examine these numbers.

Bryzgalov: 4-4-1 record, 3.16 GAA, .880 save percentage.

Smith: 4-2-1 record, 2.57 GAA, .919 save percentage.

This isn’t meant to knock Bryzgalov, a Vezina Trophy finalist two years ago, who will almost certainly turn those numbers around with the Flyers. But Smith’s strong play reinforces that old adage that it takes a village. Although there were a number of goaltenders on the open market July 1, head coach Dave Tippett (who coached Smith as a youngster in Dallas), GM Don Maloney and, perhaps most significantly, goaltending coach Sean Burke felt there was a lot to work with when it came to the 6-foot-4 Smith.

Early on, Smith has rewarded that faith in spades.

After a rocky opening night against San Jose, Smith has been stellar, and the 5-3-2 Coyotes carry a four-game unbeaten streak (3-0-1) into Wednesday’s game in Colorado.

Tippett said that Burke has helped focus Smith’s energy in practice and helped refine his game.

“Smitty’s driven to be a legitimate No. 1 NHL goaltender,” Tippett told ESPN.com.

“The student has put in the work,” the coach said.

Smith’s ability to help his defensemen with his high-end puck handling skills has forced opposing teams to alter how they approach the forecheck and allowed the Coyotes to break out of their own zone more smoothly.

Smith, the proud father of 3-month-old son Aksel, likewise passes along much credit to Burke, saying he has learned as much from the veteran NHL netminder in the short time he’s been in Phoenix than in his entire career.

“I didn’t know how it was all going to play out,” Smith acknowledged.

But now the emotional netminder said he’s thinking less and playing more, and that has resulted in more pucks hitting him and fewer going by him.

“I’m not thinking about it. I’m just kind of reading and reacting,” he said.

At one point last year, Smith was sent to the minors, his NHL career at a crossroads. He ended up returning to the Lightning and backing up Dwayne Roloson as the Lightning advanced to the Eastern Conference finals. He made a couple of strong performances in relief during that conference finals series and now seems to have found a home in the desert.

3. Avery won’t make a big impact


Interesting to listen to New York Rangers head coach John Tortorella bury San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton for some ill-timed comments about the Rangers’ softness this week. Thornton made the comments after the Rangers had thumped the Sharks 5-2 on Monday to end the Sharks’ five-game winning streak. Tortorella then suggested Thornton hadn’t won anything in his career and that he should just shut up. Great theater, but we couldn’t help but wonder if this wasn’t a little misdirection by Tortorella, who will be facing daily questions about what to do with Sean Avery now that the polarizing winger has cleared waivers and is back with the big club.

Fans and sometimes the media are slow on the uptake when it comes to a player’s diminishing skills and/or diminishing role with a team. Avery has been a fan favorite in New York because he is a character (or a caricature, depending on your viewpoint). But the truth of the matter is he has long ago ceased to be a player whose presence in the lineup makes any significant difference. We recall doing a radio interview at the start of the playoffs last spring, and there was much debate about whether Avery would be in the lineup against the Washington Capitals. He had been a healthy scratch down the stretch, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise that he didn’t play to start the series.

When Tortorella put him in during the final four games of the five-game series loss to the Caps, there was much discussion about his potential impact. As it turns out, the discussion was much ado about nothing as the Rangers lost three of those four games, and Avery added one assist.

In three of those four games, he played fewer than 15 minutes, once playing fewer than 10 minutes.

Twice during his career, Avery scored 15 goals and his ability to skate and agitate made him the kind of player that could alter the flow and tempo of a game whether it was drawing a penalty, goading opposing players into losing their minds or chipping in a smart offensively play. That seems like a lifetime ago.

Last season, Avery scored just three times in 76 games and was sent to the minors before the start of this regular season.

Even as he was about to rejoin the Rangers this week, Tortorella wouldn’t or couldn’t confirm that Avery would actually be in the lineup, which speaks volumes about just how far Avery’s stock has fallen regardless of how many pro-Avery signs show up at Madison Square Garden and how many times Tortorella gets asked about the player.

4. Are the Senators for real?


Talking about youth and surprises, the Ottawa Senators remain one of the more intriguing stories as the NHL approaches the one-month mark.

Although they had a six-game winning streak broken in Boston on Tuesday night, the Sens are 7-6, boast the league’s second-ranked power play and are tied for fifth in goals per game. Not bad for a team that a year ago ranked 29th in goals scored and 15th on the power play. Erik Karlsson, in just his third season, is tied for the league lead among defensemen with 13 points. The 21-year-old also leads the Sens in average ice time per night at 25:05. The Sens have received better performances from veteran blueliners Filip Kuba, Chris Phillips and Sergei Gonchar, but they still rank dead last in goals allowed per game at a whopping 3.85.

The penalty kill is 27th in the league. Still, predicted by most everyone to finish at the very bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the Sens have to be thrilled about their record especially after the season started with losses in five of their first six games. Now there are two schools of thought moving forward: One theory is that the youngsters, who include top-rated defensemen Jared Cowen and David Rundblad, will gain confidence from the team’s recent successes, and the team defense will get better and the Sens won’t see the bottom fallout. Theory 2 is that as the season moves along, those young players will hit a wall and that water will seek its own level, and in the Sens’ case, that means sinkage. Talk to us in a month.

5. Garrison making his presence felt in Florida


How’s this for an early success story? Florida defenseman Jason Garrison, an undrafted former University of Minnesota-Duluth player, leads all NHL defensemen with five goals. Signed as a free agent by the Panthers in 2008, Garrison has scored in three straight games for the 6-4-1 Panthers. GM Dale Tallon told ESPN.com that Garrison is finally getting to use his cannon of a shot, thanks in large part to the passes provided by defense partner Brian Campbell. In 113 NHL games prior to this season, Garrison managed seven in total. "It couldn't happen to a nicer guy," Tallon said. "Almost every goal is the same, one-timer from the deep slot. He just hammers it."


Still, there are question marks surrounding the Panthers: Backup netminder Scott Clemmensen has started practicing with the Cats again after a knee injury sustained in training camp that required surgery to repair. Although top goaltending prospect Jacob Markstrom was solid in his first sustained NHL action, backing up Jose Theodore, look for Clemmensen to move back into that role when he’s healthy and Markstrom to return to the American Hockey League, where he will get plenty of action. Still, Markstrom’s play (he is 2-2 with a .945 save percentage) bodes well for the 31st overall pick in the ’08 draft and for the future of Florida’s goaltending, whether that future arrives sooner or later.

1. Visor controversy: Why aren't players stepping up?

Anyone who’s spent any time around National Hockey League rinks understands that hockey players are for the most part considerate, thoughtful people. There are many forward-thinking, articulate players who can expound on any number of topics. Which makes it all the more mystifying when we see something as ghastly as Philadelphia Flyers captain Chris Pronger taking a stick to the eye and learn that he will miss two to three weeks with an injury that could have been significantly worse, and those same players continue to debate such an important issue.

Worse, how could a group of professional athletes go back and forth on this same health and safety issue for so long? Players have resisted efforts to impose a mandatory introduction of visors. Remember Bryan Berard? The first overall pick in the 1995 draft and former rookie of the year was clipped by Marian Hossa’s stick on March 11, 2000, in a game between Berard’s Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa. Berard returned to action but with only partial vision in one eye. Who knows what his career might have amounted to had he been wearing a visor?

More than a decade later, the most important person to the Flyers’ dreams of a Stanley Cup was involved in an eerily similar play. The NHL has been clear in its position that it wants all players to wear visors. That position has been articulated for many years. But the league has been rebuffed at every turn. Isn’t it time new NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr and his right-hand man, Mathieu Schneider, drag the union’s membership out of the dark by insisting that language be written into the new collective bargaining agreement next summer to introduce mandatory use of visors?

Isn’t it time that the players, who benefit from all hockey-related revenues, take a proactive role in protecting not only their membership but their livelihood as well? We would go so far as to suggest that the new language be all-encompassing and not allow for grandfathering, as was the case when players were forced to start wearing helmets in the late 1970s. Some in the league chose not to don a hat and could continue to do so, à la Craig MacTavish. It’s only common sense. Sadly, it was just common sense more than a decade ago.


2. Khabibulin's netminding making all the noise

A tip of the old blocker to veteran netminder Nikolai Khabibulin, whose career looked to be in shambles both physically and emotionally after last season. The veteran netminder was hampered by ongoing back issues, then was arrested for extreme drunken driving in the Phoenix area while rehabbing in February 2010.

Khabibulin ultimately was sentenced to 30 days in Arizona’s famous "Tent City" jail. (He was released after spending two weeks there.) At the time, we suggested the league should have stepped in and added its own penalty to Khabibulin for having endangered the lives of not just himself but also anyone who happened to be on the streets at the time he was driving with a blood-alcohol level twice the legal maximum in Arizona. The league chose not to go that route, and those close to Khabibulin told us we had been unfair in our criticism; he paid his penance, and the worst penalty was the shame of having his teenage daughter read about the incident and the fallout. Khabibulin said as much to reporters when he reported for training camp in Edmonton.

Was there a better way for Khabibulin to show he is rehabilitated than by producing the kind of goaltending he had showed in Tampa Bay, where he became the first Russian-trained netminder to win a Stanley Cup in 2004, or in Chicago, where he helped a young Hawks team to a surprise berth in the Western Conference finals in 2009? So far, so good for Khabibulin and the youthful Oilers, who are trying to accelerate a painful rebuild process.

The Bulin Wall was on display again Tuesday, as the Oilers chased Roberto Luongo with three early goals, then hung on for a 3-2 victory over Vancouver with Khabibulin making 35 saves. He is now 3-0-2 with a .963 save percentage and a minuscule 0.97 goals-against average. At age 38, Khabibulin has given himself and the Oilers a new, unexpected boost early on this season.

3. Old-man Arnott still has game

I have to admit that of the many offseason shufflings, we expected the addition of veteran forward Jason Arnott by the St. Louis Blues to have little impact. Arnott, who recently turned 37, has bounced from Nashville, where he was captain, to New Jersey to Washington and now to St. Louis -- all since the 2009-10 season.

Although he had moments in Washington this past spring when his veteran savvy was expected to help the Caps get over the playoff hump, his brief tenure there was ultimately unsatisfying, as the Caps were swept in the second round of the 2011 playoffs. Still, the man who scored the Cup-winning goal with the Devils back in 2000 has fit in nicely with a young St. Louis team that entered this season with high expectations.

Playing mostly with versatile forward Alex Steen, Arnott leads the 4-4 Blues with three goals and four assists. Those numbers have been a pleasant surprise for GM Doug Armstrong. But what hasn’t been a surprise has been the calming influence that Arnott and other veteran additions Jamie Langenbrunner and Kent Huskins have represented for the Blues.

Those veterans “have really stabilized the start of the season that’s had some turbulence to it,” Armstrong told ESPN.com on Wednesday in advance of a big game in Vancouver against the defending Western Conference champs.

Langenbrunner and Arnott weren’t brought in to necessarily take on pivotal offensive roles, Armstrong said, but to augment a top-nine group of forwards whose success is based on scoring by committee. It’s working out nicely for the Blues, who have won two in a row and now embark on a three-game western Canadian road trip.

4. Johnson living up to his billing

It’s not unusual to see the pros and cons of big trades shift and evolve over time. For instance, with Phil Kessel scoring goals like a maniac and the Toronto Maple Leafs at the top of the Northeast Division as the regular season heads toward the one-month mark, the deal with Boston that cost the Leafs two first-round picks and a second-rounder looks at least a little less dubious.

Last season, at least early on, it looked as though the Blues had skinned Colorado in the blockbuster deal that saw former No. 1 overall pick defenseman Erik Johnson and two-way forward Jay McClement dealt to Colorado in exchange for big winger Chris Stewart and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.

The Avs also received a first-round pick while sending a second-round pick back to the Blues. But with Stewart tearing it up as a Blue, scoring 15 times in 26 games for his second straight 28-goal campaign while the Avs were sinking like a stone to the bottom of the NHL standings, this deal looked pretty lopsided.

Early this season, though, you’d be hard-pressed to find any regrets on either side of the deal.

Stewart has only two goals thus far, but Armstrong said the winger is being asked to turn in a more complete game, and that may mean a slight downturn in goal production, a decline that will be worth it if the Blues become a better overall team. Shattenkirk, who led all rookie defensemen with 43 points last season, has three points this season and has terrific upside.

The big righting of the scales on this deal has been in Colorado, where Johnson has been a key component of an Avs team that has surprised most observers by getting off to a 6-2 start. Johnson is leading all Avs with an average of 23:26 in ice time every night, playing mostly with veteran shutdown defender Jan Hejda. Johnson has five assists in eight games, and although he is minus-6, he seems more comfortable in his role as the Avs’ go-to guy on the blue line, where he is called on in all key situations of the game.

“That’s how we imagined him when we acquired him,” GM Greg Sherman told ESPN.com this week.

We spoke to a leaner Johnson before training camp, and he said he was dedicated to being quicker this season. Sherman said the 6-foot-4 defenseman’s preparation has been “outstanding."

Now all we need is a Blues-Avs playoff series to really bring this debate into focus.

5. Risk and reward of trades

Another trade that will get more than a few good, hard looks as the season goes on -- and beyond -- will be the Florida Panthers’ dealing of onetime 31-goal man David Booth to Vancouver for veteran forwards Marco Sturm and Mikael Samuelsson. As with most trades, there’s a significant amount of risk for both teams and similarly significant potential upside. In the end, though, the old chestnut is that the team that ends up with the best player is ultimately the team that wins.

The trade is a lot more difficult to discern in this situation: First of all, there seems to be little debate that the Booth acquired by the Canucks is a vastly different player than the one who scored 31 times in 2008-09. That, of course, was before Booth was decimated by a blindside hit courtesy of Mike Richards, then with Philadelphia.

Last season, his first full season after the hit that cost Booth a certain spot on the 2010 U.S. Olympic team, Booth’s goal production dropped to 23, and he was a minus-31. He was without a goal and was minus-6 in six games this season with the Panthers. Booth had three shots and no points in his debut with Vancouver on Tuesday a 3-2 loss to Edmonton.

Florida GM Dale Tallon, in the midst of a monster makeover of the moribund Panthers, didn’t think he had enough NHL talent on his lineup and so decided Booth was expendable. Booth is owed an annual salary of $4.25 million for three more years after this season, and that’s where it gets dicey for the Canucks.

If Booth gets back to the 30-goal level -- and playing with talent like Ryan Kesler, etc., who’s to say he won’t? -- the risk will have been worth it to the Cup-hopeful Canucks. But if he can’t -- and recent history suggests it will be a major coup if he does get back to that level -- the Canucks will find themselves with yet another burdensome contract courtesy of the Panthers for the foreseeable future.

The issue with Booth is that he is a goal scorer. He doesn’t kill penalties, and he’s not likely to evolve into a top setup man. If he can’t score, he'll join defenseman Keith Ballard, who was in and out of the Canucks' lineup last season, as players who could stifle the team’s evolution. Ballard also has three more years after this season at a $4.2 million cap hit. That’s a lot of money committed to two guys whose long-term usefulness is in question.

As for the Panthers, Sturm and Samuelsson can add some offense and, in Sturm’s case, play a variety of roles up front. But their chief value is that they'll disappear from the Panthers’ books as unrestricted free agents at the end of the season. With a handful of key prospects like Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad, among others who are expected to challenge for roster spots, that’s not a bad thing.

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