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Edmonton Oilers goalie Nikolai Khabibulin makes a save against the Florida Panthers during first-period preseason NHL hockey action in Edmonton, Alberta on Friday, September 18, 2009. (Jimmy Jeong)
Edmonton Oilers goalie Nikolai Khabibulin makes a save against the Florida Panthers during first-period preseason NHL hockey action in Edmonton, Alberta on Friday, September 18, 2009. (Jimmy Jeong)

NHL Preview: Part 1

'Bulin Wall gives Oilers solid foundation Add to ...

For years, dating to the Patrick Roy era in Colorado, the one thing that set the NHL's Northwest Division apart was the quality of its goaltenders.

Vézina Trophy candidates, all of them - from Niklas Backstrom in Minnesota and Miikka Kiprusoff in Calgary to the incomparable Roberto Luongo in Vancouver.

And this year, the Edmonton Oilers have their own answer - they hope.

Nikolai Khabibulin - more than five years removed from the Stanley Cup, but coming off a seriously good 25-8-7 season, in which he was fourth in goals-against average, seventh in save percentage and first out the door when the Chicago Blackhawks ran into salary-cap oblivion - joined the Oilers as an unrestricted free agent, replacing Dwayne Roloson.

In Khabibulin, the Oilers landed a proven winner that was four years Roloson's junior and a primary reason why Chicago made it to the NHL's final four in May.

Apart from hiring an all-star coaching staff to shepherd in the new post-Craig MacTavish era, Khabibulin is the one major upgrade on an Oilers team that is small up front and skilled on the blueline but lacks an abrasive edge or a go-to scoring star.

And while the Oilers had nothing but good things to say about the man that Khabibulin replaced, team captain Ethan Moreau concurred with the basic premise, suggesting: "Having Khabibulin here allows us to compete with Kiprusoff, Luongo, Backstrom - the elite goalies in our division and conference.

"It's a daunting task every night because if you don't get equal goaltending, it's very hard to win. Goaltending is one of the only positions in hockey, where you can't cover up your weaknesses. You can have smaller forwards, or if you don't score enough, you can cover up your weaknesses with other strengths. But goaltending is a must and we have a guy that's played at an elite level for a long time, so that does give us some comfort."

Khabibulin broke into the NHL playing for the Winnipeg Jets, which once had a reputation of being the least attractive place to play in the league.

Of late, Edmonton's been stuck with that rap - and any number of front-line players, from Jaromir Jagr and Marian Hossa to Dany Heatley said thanks but no thanks to the City of Champions.

Not Khabibulin, who says he chose Edmonton for a variety of different reasons, including the fact that they were offering a four-year contract commitment.

But mostly what he likes is the passion of the place and said he plans to feed off the emotion of the fans, something that was noticeably absent in his first two years with Chicago, when the Blackhawks played in front of half-empty crowds.

"I never had issues with Winnipeg and when I had a chance to sign here, the city itself was the last thing that I'd be concerned about," Khabibulin said. "If you play well, this is one of the better places to play. You could put a team in Paris, France, but if nobody cared about hockey, it wouldn't be as much fun.

"In Canada, and in a smaller city in Canada, it's similar, I think, to playing soccer in England. The building is always full. The fans are energetic and passionate. You get recognized on the street. Overall, it's a pretty amazing experience."

Oilers assistant coach Tom Renney received a detailed scouting report on Khabibulin from goaltending guru Benoit Allaire and says the newcomer has been exactly as advertised.

"He's a great guy - very open-minded, very helpful, very willing to listen," Renney said. "He's good with his teammates and the young guys - and pretty good at his position, too."

In the Northwest Division arms race, in which the Oilers need the kind of goaltending deterrent that Khabibulin can provide, any hopes they have of being competitive rest with him.

"The big thing for us is to be economical with how much we play him," Renney said. "I don't think he's a 70-game guy. I'm hoping he's 60. That's something, as an organization and coaching staff, we'll have a philosophy for.

"The good news is, our two young goaltenders have both done well, so it means we should get 20 games out of whomever we settle on. That's really important because if they can play, then Khabibulin's better, too.

"Then we don't extend him. We keep him fresh. We keep him on his toes. We keep him on his game. Look at Henrik [Lundqvist, the Rangers goalie under Renney last year] Finally, Washington got to him in the playoffs. There's a law of diminishing returns if you play a guy too much."

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