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Nikolai Khabibulin Archives

Blackhawks gather to celebrate promise and questions

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Just a week left before the Blackhawks convention puts a serious strain on the available alcohol resources in the Loop.

So there is no time like the present to start jotting down those sobering questions you might forget later in a vodka/whiskey/beer/scotch/schnapps haze to ask Rocky Wirtz, John McDonough, Dale Tallon, Joel Quenneville or your player of choice.

Stream of consciousness questioning has always been one of my strengths, because you never need to focus longer than it takes to down a shot and you expect to be lied to. And you can always make up your own answers if you don't like the stammers you get.

Let's begin with some scattershot queries that should pepper the proceedings at the convention.

If you tried to sign back unrestricted free agent Nikolai Khabibulin right up until the last minute when he took more money and years to go to Edmonton, what is it that scares the hell out of you about goalie Cristobal Huet as the primary guy?

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Blackhawks net result so far is confusion

This is the one-year anniversary of Cristobal Huet signing a four-year, $22.5 million contract to be the goalie of the future with the Blackhawks.

Happy anniversary, Cris. Time flies. You're history. Thanks for coming.

Or so it seems with the latest rumor flying around that general manager Dale Tallon may re-sign Nikolai Khabibulin for two years, $8 million.

Everyone, myself included, has already stamped Khabibulin's passport and sent him out of town. No way the Hawks could afford to pay him and Huet. So Nik was cut out of the picture by most observers after an occasionally strong effort in the postseason.

Now, if Khabibulin is back, it figures that Huet has to go in a trade. The revolving door on the Hawks net is a source of confusion that is not comforting when you look at how the situation has been handled for the past year.

Organizations don't thrive by changing their mind every five seconds. It sends a fuzzy signal to the troops to make your latest decision on which way the wind is blowing.

Shortly after Huet arrived last year, Khabibulin was put on waivers in September by the Hawks after being injured and inconsistent in his previous three years. But Khabibulin stayed put in Chicago, emerged as their go-to guy in the regular season and was their netminding fixture in the playoff run to the Western Conference finals.

There were times in the playoffs he was sensational, although there were other moments he allowed soft goals at crucial junctions. In addition, his injury history is a source of constant worry. Injury and inconsistency are the two big sticklers whenever he gets evaluated.

So was signing Huet in the first place a bad decision? So was waiving Khabibulin a dumb move in retrospect, considering the Hawks may not have been playoff material without him?

Who's on first?

Tallon will be making some major decisions today and in the next several days about the future of his team. Here's hoping the picture looks more settled at the end of the day than it does now.

Hawks risk losing Bolland to big money offer

Steve Konroyd always showed good instincts as a Blackhawks defenseman, and so when he senses that there could be an opposing team preparing an offer for restricted free agent center Dave Bolland, you better pay attention to a guy with bloodhound sniffing abilities.

"Hopefully, somebody doesn't make too strong an offer for Bolland," said Konroyd, who is a keen-eyed hockey observer for Comcast broadcasts and lives in suburban Chicago. "That's one risk I see with our restricted free agents."

General manager Dale Tallon would have the chance to match any offer, of course. But if an opponent wants to throw a wrench into Tallon's offseason tip-toeing through this salary-cap minefield, dropping an unexpectedly large bid on Bolland could be a sticking point.

If the money bid is overwhelming for someone such as Bolland, who earned $887,000 last season, Tallon would be put in a tight squeeze. To pay or not to pay? That could be the expensive question.

"You have to make very judicious judgments as a team," Hawks president John McDonough said this week.

The Hawks would get draft picks in exchange for losing key restricted free agents such as Bolland, Kris Versteeg, Cam Barker, Ben Eager or Troy Brouwer, but Konroyd would much prefer that most of those assets remain. Bolland and Versteeg both contributed 12 points in the postseason, tying for fourth best on the club.

Konroyd also suspects aggressive play out of Tallon in the next few months. While Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith are all contractually committed to the Hawks for 2009-10, he expects Tallon to attempt signing all of them to extensions this offseason and addressing next offseason's salary cap worries right now.

"I think he will try to do deals now with valuable guys like that," Konroyd said of these core players. "Their value can only go up."

Next year the price for Kane, Toews and Keith skyrockets if the team succeeds again, as everybody in Chicago hopes. Fitting them into the salary structure is a must-do now, not later.

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Khabibulin gets voted off the Blackhawks island

Nikolai Khabibulin simply doesn't get enough love in Chicago to survive an expected purge in the next few weeks.

So, Nik, apparently it's time to bid you good night and good luck. Unofficially, Khabibulin is out the door by all appearances and his countless detractors won't mind at all if it kicks him in the ass on the way. Even if that reaggravates the groin injury that led to his early exit from the Detroit series.

The free agent goaltender was losing roughly 67 to 33 per cent at last check in a Tribune poll asking if Blackhawks fans would settle for Cristobal Huet next season over Khabibulin, who is widely not expected to be re-signed. This is one Russian not faring well in a democracy.

Second City Hockey, a blog site, has started breaking down key performances for the season by leading off with an even-handed, but generally negative review of Khabibulin's overall output, highlighting what the blog considers a disappointing postseason for him even after helping the Hawks past Calgary and Vancouver to gain the conference finals.

With Blackhawks organizational meetings beginning today in Chicago, you suspect that the reviews for Khabibulin won't be markedly different from Second City Hockey. Today should be the beginning of the end of Khabibulin's generally underachieving time in Chicago.

That chill you feel off the lake isn't just a Canadian front moving down, it's Khabibulin getting the cold shoulder. Detroit's Daniel Cleary put a couple goals past Khabibulin in the conference finals that still have distraught Hawks fans reaching for a shot and a beer at the memories of a dream being stripped away.

"Mostly what were bad were the playoffs,'' the Second City Hockey review determined about Khabibulin this year. "Though Khabby deserved the nod when Game 1 against Calgary rolled around, only his first period in that game, Game 6 against the Flames and the second period in Game 1 against the Wings were anything to get excited about. Aside from that, he was only slightly better than ordinary."

At a 2008-09 salary of $6.75 million, the Hawks braintrust can't appear to justify bringing back Khabibulin for slightly better than ordinary and setting up a shared role in net with Huet. There has been some noises made about that as a possibility, but it seems a flawed idea with too much money focused on one position.

Second City Hockey spotlighted some goals-against average and save percentage statistics at even-strength that cast Khabibulin in a favorable way. Based on quality shots, Khabibulin fared well. But in the glass half full category, he came up empty in the critique.

"Khabby proved what we always thought he was, a goaltender who would flourish when not asked to shoulder a heavy load," the blog concluded.

The insinuation was made that Khabibulin even played as well as he did during a limited 42 games during the season because he was in a contract year. That's always an insult to any professional player worth his salt, even though it's also sometimes right on the mark.

Quite a few people seem to believe Khabibulin doesn't possess enough character or an inner flame that would allow him to be the goalie that helps the Hawks to the next level.

So the next time Hawks fans get a look at Khabibulin, he probably will be in the opposing net at the United Center. And he will probably be inspired to return some of those stones directed his way as he leaves town.

But many Hawks fans will risk losing a game to Khabibulin in the short term rather than letting the whole season slip from his grasp.

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