TORONTO – Injuries have taken their toll on Nikolai Khabibulin in recent years so the veteran goalie has learned to savour every start he gets.
“It’s still a thrill,” says Khabibulin. “There’s not many things that you can do in life to duplicate the feeling when you step on the ice and you see a full building. Especially when you go to real hockey markets.”
Khabibulin was slated to be in the Edmonton Oilers net Thursday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs after missing seven games with a groin injury.
He was limited to just 18 games a year ago because of a back problem.
Khabibulin still has two years remaining on his contract with the Oilers at US$3.75 million per season, but is facing a somewhat uncertain future. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail by an Arizona court in August following a drunk driving conviction—although his lawyers are expected to file an appeal.
On the ice, it’s also been a struggle. Entering Thursday, his 4.07 goals-against average was last in the league and his .879 save percentage was tied for second-worst among goalies who had made at least nine appearances.
It hasn’t helped playing behind a young team that is still learning the ropes.
“I think we’re starting to play a little bit better,” said Khabibulin. “We’re starting to figure what we have to do in order to win games. I can’t say that we’re playing perfect right now because we’re not.
“We still make quite a few mistakes.”
There are only three goalies in the NHL who are older than Khabibulin, who turns 38 in January. He says he hasn’t thought at all about retirement and draws some inspiration from 41-year-old Islanders goaltender Dwayne Roloson.
“I’ve still got four or five years on him,” Khabibulin said with a laugh. “That’s encouraging for older guys. The guy can play still be effective at (41)—it’s good.”
In the Oilers dressing room, he is something of an anomaly.
Khabibulin is the oldest player on the team—captain Shawn Horcoff and defenceman Jason Strudwick are the only others born in the 1970s—and was already playing pro hockey in Russia when some of his younger teammates were born. For the most part, he feels like one of the guys.
“Maybe I get a little bit more respect around the locker-room,” said Khabibulin. “I’m really not asking for that. I want to be just like everyone else.
“I don’t want to feel old.”