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

Aug 24, 2011, 5:44 PM EDT

Edmonton Oilers v Dallas Stars Getty Images

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.

  1. cshearing - Aug 25, 2011 at 10:43 AM

    Dubnyk will be the starter, Khabibulin is done. At the time, I thought Bulin’s signing was a good deal. Now I think it is one of the worst we have made.

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