Acquiring elite goalie Nikolai Khabibulin has given Tampa Bay a jolt of energy
During a pregame skate on Dec. 21, Lightning coach John Tortorella and Blues winger Keith Tkachuk, both of whom were with the Coyotes when Nikolai Khabibulin played in Phoenix, were chatting about him. "It's unbelievable that the Coyotes would trade him," Tkachuk told Tortorella. "He's a franchise player."
Khabibulin, a 28-year-old Russian, has shown himself to be just that since being dealt to Tampa Bay, where lousy goalies have been outnumbered only by early-bird dinner specials. "Nik is on a mission," Tortorella says of Khabibulin, who through last Wednesday was 13-15-3 with five shutouts and a league-best .933 save percentage. "He relishes the opportunity to take a team that has struggled and put it on his shoulders. Now we're getting a little respect around the league."
After missing all but two games over the past two seasons because of a contract dispute with the cash-strapped Coyotes, Khabibulin, a restricted free agent, was traded to Tampa Bay last March for four players. He signed a four-year, $14.8 million deal with incentives that could boost its value to $22.3 million, the richest for any player in Lightning history. "I felt he justified the expense," says general manager Rick Dudley. "I was dumbfounded by people who said he couldn't come back and perform at the same level. It's not as though he was 36. He was a premier goaltender, and he still is."
In 1999-2000, the first year of his holdout, the 6'1", 196-pound Khabibulin played with the Long Beach Ice Dogs of the International Hockey League, went 21-11-1 with a 1.83 goals-against average and shared the league's MVP award. Last season, while living in Phoenix, he spent time shuttling his nine-year-old daughter, Sasha, between school and tennis lessons, giving his wife, Victoria, a break. Nikolai, who had been criticized for poor conditioning, worked hard to stay in shape, lifting weights and doing speed drills with Matt Anderson, the trainer of the Arizona Rattlers in the Arena Football League. Khabibulin skated last summer with the Russian national team, in Minsk, Belarus, and reported to the Lightning camp with 9% body fat, the lowest of his career.
The always technically sound Khabibulin has played slightly deeper in the crease this season to exploit his side-to-side mobility. "I've tried to work on being in a better position to stop the shot and not have to dive for it," says Khabibulin. "Playing deeper gives you more of a chance to see the passes across the middle, to use your reflexes to stop the initial shot."
Through last Wednesday, the 15-19-3-2 Lightning, which hasn't made the playoffs since 1996, trailed the Devils by six points for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. "With Nik we can say we're in an enviable position," Dudley says, "and that hasn't been said about Tampa Bay much before."
World Junior Championship
The Future Looks Bright
At the world junior championship, which ended last Friday in Pardubice, Czech Republic, 21 of the 30 first-round NHL draft picks last June were on display. Here's a thumbnail look at how three studs performed.
? Stanislav Chistov (No. 5, Mighty Ducks). Russia's undersized left wing (5'9", 169 pounds) showed he's a crafty skater, with six points in his team's first five games, including a goal and two assists in a 6-1 quarterfinal win over the U.S.