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Life after Tent City; Nikolai Khabibulin looks forward to proving doubters wrong

Sep 14, 2011, 12:01 AM EDT

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Nikolai Khabibulin AP

The story of Nikolai Khabibulin’s tumultuous offseason has been well documented. After a DUI trial (and subsequent conviction), Khabibulin was sentenced to 15 days split between work release and Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Tent City in Arizona. 108 degree heat and close quarters weren’t exactly the type of accommodations that he’s grown accustomed to over his 15 seasons in the NHL. This just in: doing “hard time” isn’t a pleasant experience.

With the punishment in his rearview mirror, he took some time to reflect on the experience with the Edmonton Journal’s Jim Matheson. Khabibulin shared experiences that may have differed from most inmates’ experiences. He also shared how the public nature of his trial and punishment affected not only himself, but his family as well.

“There were a lot of people I talked to. Contractors, some are CEOs of companies, some regular people and we all talked about the things we did. We all said if we could get this back, we’d never do it. It’s tough to deal with, especially when you’re in the media. My daughter just turned 19 and she reads the Internet. She wasn’t very happy. It’s not like she was giving me a hard time … she would say something funny to me, but I know she was crying the first few days I was there. That was hard on me. I’m pretty sure with what I’ve done, she’ll learn from this too.”

Now that he’s out and has presumably learned his lesson the hard way, he can attempt to turn his attention to his job: the upcoming hockey season. After earning his current 4-year, $15 million contract with a dominant 2008-09 season in Chicago, he’s struggled to find his form in an Oilers jersey. He looked like he had rediscovered his game during his final season with the Blackhawks as he racked up a 25-8-7 record with a .919 save percentage and a 2.33 goals against average. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that was only two seasons ago.

There’s no questioning that it’s been a rocky Albertan road for Khabibulin thus far. His total record for the Oilers has been 17-41-6 while he’s given up an average of more than 3 goals per game. Then again, the Bulin Wall isn’t the only player who has struggled over the last two seasons in Edmonton. It takes more than one player to earn #1 overall draft picks for two consecutive years.

Despite the chaotic summer and rough two seasons in Edmonton, Khabibulin believes he still has something left in the tank. The Tent City story may have dominated headlines, but it’s the work the netminder has put in behind-the-scenes that he believes will help him turn things around this season. Again, from Matheson’s article:

“When you go on a long losing streak and nothing seems to go right, it’s more discouraging than having lost your confidence. I’ve put a lot of work in this summer, starting earlier, not many days off. I have a little extra motivation this year to be in better shape (he was coming off back surgery last fall) and be quicker. I still have the motivation. You see a guy like (Dwayne) Roloson who is almost 42, who had a pretty good regular season and a really good playoff. I think that’s encouraging for anybody.”

Edmonton fans would love to see Khabibulin channel his inner-Roloson. After all, this is a fanbase who had an up-close and personal look at Roloson’s finest moment as the Oilers rode the goaltender to within a single game of their sixth Stanley Cup. He’s shown in the past that he’s capable of being an elite goaltender when he’s motivated. He was motivated in his final season with the Lightning and helped Tampa win their only Stanley Cup. He was motivated yet again in Chicago and had one of the best seasons in his career.

We’ll see if he’s as motivated as he says he is. If so, back-up goaltender Devan Dubnyk better make sure his baseball cap fits comfortably.

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