Can Nikolai Khabibulin get his career back together?

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If you’re not the patient type, you might think that the Edmonton Oilers are at a crossroads. At some point, Oilers fans will likely grow tired of the word “potential.” Sure, they might be delighted by the bevy of high draft picks still in their teens or early 20’s right now, but at some point earning the top pick of the draft will be more shameful than hopeful. Sooner or later, this team needs to start winning games.

If you’re a realist, it’s pretty tough to envision that time being the 2011-12 season. That being said, a Hollywood scriptwriter might see an obvious redemption story revolving around the Oilers and their wayward goalie Nikolai Khabibulin.

“The Bulin Wall” falls apart

The 38-year-old goalie has seen plenty of ups and downs in his career – from contract squabbles in Phoenix to a Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay to a mixed bag in Chicago and finally that ludicrous four-year, $15 million deal with Edmonton – but things have been decidedly “down” since he became an Oiler. His worst moment came last summer, when he received an extreme DUI and reckless driving charge. Khabibulin was able to appeal and postpone jail time in order to play hockey last season, but will face the music for 30 days (half in prison, half with an “electric monitoring device”) this summer after dropping his appeal.

Things haven’t been much better on the ice, either

This story would probably gain more attention if Khabibulin found the hockey rink as a sanctuary, but if his on-ice results are any indication, it hasn’t provided him much comfort. During two seasons with the Oilers, Khabibulin went 17-41-6 in 63 games played with mediocre (.909 save percentage and 3.03 GAA in 09-10) to awful (.890 save percentage and 3.40 GAA in 10-11) individual numbers.

The Edmonton Journal is polling its audience to see if the goalie deserves a second chance, but since Khabibulin’s contract is a 35+ deal, the Oilers are forced to keep him around unless some foolish team decides to trade for him. Head coach Tom Renney indicated that the starting job is Khabibulin’s to lose, but it wouldn’t be shocking if he had a short leash this season.

Edmonton’s troubling options in net

The team will probably lean on over-sized prospect goalie Devan Dubnyk more either way, especially since he nearly went .500 (12-13-8) and put up an above average .916 save percentage and 2.71 GAA. If their 2011-12 seasons resemble 10-11, it won’t be long before Khabibulin ends up parked on the bench.

It’s a grim situation though, with one goalie who seems done (Khabibulin) and one goalie who might not be ready yet (Dubnyk). Yann Danis ranks as the “break glass in case of an emergency” goalie, but if it comes to that, the Oilers very well might be in draft lottery talk land again.

Really, the only bummer is that Khabibulin isn’t in a contract year. He won a Cup right before his contract expired in Tampa Bay and mysteriously played his best year of hockey with the Blackhawks in a similar situation.

Perhaps the possibility of a 2012-13 turnaround is something Oilers fans can look forward to, because the next season could be another bleak one.