How Nikolai Khabibulin Can Bury the Chicago Blackhawks from the Bench

By Michael Guzman
Nikolai Khabibulin
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Roster decisions are forthcoming for the Chicago Blackhawks. Despite being one of the best teams in the NHL both on the ice and in the front office, injuries coupled with a large trade has the defending Stanley Cup Champions in a precarious position.

Thanks to the Long Term Injured Reserve of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Blackhawks were able to quickly relegate struggling backup goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin and his massive $1.7 million cap hit off the books, giving prospect Antti Raanta his opportunity as an NHL goaltender.

Since being called up, Raanta has impressed, winning his first two NHL starts and averaging a .917 save percentage through his first three doses of NHL action.

When asked by Chris Kuc of the Chicago Tribune about Khabibulin’s future with the team, General Manager Stan Bowman gave a neutral, expected response, stating:

“Sometimes you can work your way out of those slow starts and now he has the injury to come back from.” Bowman made sure to fight off the question even more by adding: “We don’t have to make a decision now, so don’t make a decision.”

Assuming the Blackhawks have both Bryan Bickell and Michael Kostka back on the roster, Khabibulin’s return, performance aside, is just about financially impossible. With both new acquisition Kris Versteeg and backup Khabibulin on the 23 man roster, the Blackhawks would be over the limit. If they choose to demote Kostka, the resulting cap room is so minimal (approximately $420,000 per Capgeek’s Armchair GM Tool) even player promotion would be troublesome.

As it is, the Blackhawks are between a rock and a hard place. Khabibulin is a veteran netminder, and demoting him is not only insulting but rather impractical. Contractually speaking, they would be in the same position of minimal cap as if they demoted Kostka, which they would be forced to do if Khabibulin was sent down. Even more difficult — thanks to ineptitude — is that the once-great goalie has become untradeable, and undesirable.

Unfortunately, it appears there is no good way for the Blackhawks to avoid not biting the bullet. A fully healthy team with Khabibulin’s contract buried cannot sustain 23 players. For the team to do so, major sacrifices in performance or another trade will have to occur, and that’s something that will certainly damage a team which currently has no critical flaws thanks to Antti Raanta.

Follow Mike Guzman on Twitter @Mike486

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