Tom Renney admits that Nikolai Khabibulin’s role next season remains a ‘great mystery’

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As the Edmonton Oilers stockpile prospects and young players, the optimism around the organization remains strong. But as I’ve said before, at some point fans will grow tired of so-called potential and crave an on-ice product that isn’t regularly embarrassing.

Despite only scoring 193 goals (third worst in the NHL) last season, it seems like the team’s offense seems is moving in the right direction, especially if Taylor Hall has a strong second season and Ales Hemsky stays healthy in his contract year.

One must perceive the Oilers’ biggest issues to be in their own end of the ice, then. Merely glancing at the Edmonton Journal’s tragically comical poll about the team’s best defensive corps from the last four years sheds a troubling light on the team’s defensive deficits. Perhaps the team could make up for those shortcomings on the blueline by enjoying some sterling play from their netminders, but it’s tough to say that they’ll get above average results from their questionable duo of Nikolai Khabibulin and Devan Dubnyk.

Even Oilers coach Tom Renney isn’t sure what to expect from Khabibulin in general, as he admitted that the troubled Russian’s 2011-12 season remains a mystery even to the team that employs him.

Renney said Khabibulin’s physical and mental health will be assessed in training camp.

“I certainly don’t expect Nikolai Khabibulin to play 70 games. I’m not sure he can play 60. I’m not sure he can play 50. That’s the great mystery here.”

As for Devan Dubnyk, Renney said the young goalie needs to get stronger, more explosive, a fair critique. He added that Dubnyk will take over from Khabibulin sooner or later. “I think this is a young fellow who is on the verge of being a National Hockey League starter. There’s no question about that.”

Khabibulin is certainly getting older, Renney said.

“For me, it’s a perfect scenario at some point in time, whether it’s this year or the beginning of next year, sooner rather than later remains to be seen, but there is an opportunity for a changing of the guard. And it should be a healthy situation.”

Renney also spoke about banged-up defenseman Ryan Whitney, who’s still experiencing some tenderness in his surgically repaired ankle. The former Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman ranks as one of the best options Edmonton has on defense, which is a troubling statement even beyond his health struggles because the solid offensive blueliner has his occasional struggles with turnovers.

I’ve seen some people list the Oilers as a possible dark horse candidate, which seems like a fun gamble to throw out because of their young talent. The problem is that they’re a flawed team in the stacked Western Conference, where it’s tough to imagine them overcoming their sub-par defense and shaky goaltending.

It would be great if that instinct ends up being wrong because Oilers fans have been waiting patiently for the team to regain the form they only briefly enjoyed during a Cinderella run with Chris Pronger and Dwayne Roloson. For that to happen, they’re going to need to see continued promise from Dubnyk and a much sturdier Bulin Wall.

Lundqvist will start four of five remaining games

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Henrik Lundqvist has had two tough starts since returning from injury.

The 35-year-old allowed five goals in his first game back, a 6-3 loss to Anaheim Sunday, and five more in his second game, a 5-4 OT loss to San Jose Tuesday.

But Lundqvist is still the No. 1 in New York, and for that reason he’s scheduled to start four of the Rangers’ five remaining regular-season games, with the hope he’ll be able to play his way back into form in time for the postseason.

Lundqvist was not happy after Tuesday’s loss to the Sharks, even though the point the Rangers gained earned them a playoff berth.

“I’m extremely disappointed right now,” he told reporters. “I’m glad we’re in, but I want to get the job done. I want the win. We found a way to lose this one at the end.”

With the loss, Lundqvist’s save percentage fell to .911 on the season. If it finishes at that number, it would be the lowest save percentage of his NHL career.

Antti Raanta‘s save percentage, meanwhile, sits at .922. In his last start, he shut out the Kings in Los Angeles.

The Rangers host Pittsburgh tomorrow and Philadelphia Sunday. Next week, they’re in Washington Wednesday, Ottawa Saturday, and then they close out their schedule at home to Pittsburgh Sunday.

Raanta will start one of the final two games.

The Rangers are likely to face Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs.

Reinhart suggests benching him for an entire game might’ve been a stretch

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Two days after Sam Reinhart was bolted to the pine for the entirety of Buffalo’s 3-1 loss to Columbus — his punishment for showing up late to a team stretch — Reinhart discussed the incident, and didn’t sound overly thrilled about how it played out.

“It’s a coach’s decision. It’s a management decision,” Reinhart said, per the Buffalo News. “From my perspective, I would have rather battled it out with my teammates.

“I don’t think five minutes in the morning is going to influence my preparation for a game, but it was a team stretch and I should have been there on time.”

Reinhart also had this to say:

Discipline of this nature is pretty common, though the way Reinhart’s played out was a bit more dramatic. Rather than park him in the press box as a healthy scratch, the Sabres — who didn’t have an extra forward, as Kyle Okposo was out sick — dressed the 21-year-old, then sat him for the entire 60 minutes.

The Buffalo News said the move “would seem to send a deeper message than merely being scratch,” adding that “there has been friction between players and [Sabres head coach Dan] Bylsma throughout the season.”

In the club’s defense, Reinhart is hardly the first young player to be punished for lateness. Nikita Zadorov had repeated issues with punctuality and, after being suspended, was eventually traded to Colorado. Evander Kane was parked for a game last season after sleeping in and missing a practice.

Of course, each situation is unique and some will argue showing up five minutes late for a stretch isn’t on par with what Zadorov and Kane did. Which is fair. That could be why Bylsma said the club might consider a policy change.

And that could by why Reinhart’s teammate, Jack Eichel, tried to put things in perspective.

“We’re obviously not going to hold it over his head here,” Eichel said, per the News. “He didn’t really do too much wrong.”

North Dakota’s Poolman turns pro, signs with Jets

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Another day, another North Dakota departure.

Having already lost freshman Tyson Jost (signed with Colorado) and sophomore Brock Boeser (signed with Vancouver), the school has now learned that junior blueliner Tucker Poolman has signed an entry-level deal with the Jets.

Poolman, 23, was taken by Winnipeg in the fifth round (127th overall) at the ’13 draft. From the Free Press:

UND’s top defenceman was playing between 25 and 30 minutes per game and was the fourth-highest scoring blue-liner in the NCHC. He finished the season with seven goals, 30 points, 14 penalty minutes and a plus-18 rating in 38 games.

Poolman’s final campaign ended on a sour note. He suffered a shoulder injury during the NCHC championship game and was unable to play in North Dakota’s season-ending loss to Boston University in the NCAA championships.

Coming to America: Jackets assign Carlsson to Cleveland

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His Swedish season over, defenseman Gabriel Carlsson is coming to North America to play some hockey.

The Columbus Blue Jackets announced today that Carlsson, the 29th overall pick in the 2015 draft, has been assigned to AHL Cleveland.

From the press release:

Carlsson, 20, recently completed his second full season with Linköping HC in the Swedish Hockey League where he collected two goals and two assists for four points with six penalty minutes and a +8 plus/minus rating in 40 games.

Linköping was eliminated from the SHL playoffs on Tuesday.

Carlsson is listed at 6-4 and 191 pounds.