Publish date:

Inside The NHL


Lightning Strike
Acquiring elite goalie Nikolai Khabibulin has given Tampa Bay a
jolt of energy

During a pregame skate on Dec. 21, Lightning coach John
Tortorella and Blues winger Keith Tkachuk, both of whom were
with the Coyotes when Nikolai Khabibulin played in Phoenix, were
chatting about him. "It's unbelievable that the Coyotes would
trade him," Tkachuk told Tortorella. "He's a franchise player."

Khabibulin, a 28-year-old Russian, has shown himself to be just
that since being dealt to Tampa Bay, where lousy goalies have
been outnumbered only by early-bird dinner specials. "Nik is on
a mission," Tortorella says of Khabibulin, who through last
Wednesday was 13-15-3 with five shutouts and a league-best .933
save percentage. "He relishes the opportunity to take a team
that has struggled and put it on his shoulders. Now we're
getting a little respect around the league."

After missing all but two games over the past two seasons
because of a contract dispute with the cash-strapped Coyotes,
Khabibulin, a restricted free agent, was traded to Tampa Bay
last March for four players. He signed a four-year, $14.8
million deal with incentives that could boost its value to $22.3
million, the richest for any player in Lightning history. "I
felt he justified the expense," says general manager Rick
Dudley. "I was dumbfounded by people who said he couldn't come
back and perform at the same level. It's not as though he was
36. He was a premier goaltender, and he still is."

In 1999-2000, the first year of his holdout, the 6'1", 196-pound
Khabibulin played with the Long Beach Ice Dogs of the
International Hockey League, went 21-11-1 with a 1.83
goals-against average and shared the league's MVP award. Last
season, while living in Phoenix, he spent time shuttling his
nine-year-old daughter, Sasha, between school and tennis
lessons, giving his wife, Victoria, a break. Nikolai, who had
been criticized for poor conditioning, worked hard to stay in
shape, lifting weights and doing speed drills with Matt
Anderson, the trainer of the Arizona Rattlers in the Arena
Football League. Khabibulin skated last summer with the Russian
national team, in Minsk, Belarus, and reported to the Lightning
camp with 9% body fat, the lowest of his career.

The always technically sound Khabibulin has played slightly
deeper in the crease this season to exploit his side-to-side
mobility. "I've tried to work on being in a better position to
stop the shot and not have to dive for it," says Khabibulin.
"Playing deeper gives you more of a chance to see the passes
across the middle, to use your reflexes to stop the initial shot."

Through last Wednesday, the 15-19-3-2 Lightning, which hasn't
made the playoffs since 1996, trailed the Devils by six points
for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. "With Nik
we can say we're in an enviable position," Dudley says, "and
that hasn't been said about Tampa Bay much before."

World Junior Championship
The Future Looks Bright

At the world junior championship, which ended last Friday in
Pardubice, Czech Republic, 21 of the 30 first-round NHL draft
picks last June were on display. Here's a thumbnail look at how
three studs performed.

--Stanislav Chistov (No. 5, Mighty Ducks). Russia's undersized
left wing (5'9", 169 pounds) showed he's a crafty skater, with
six points in his team's first five games, including a goal and
two assists in a 6-1 quarterfinal win over the U.S.

--Pascal Leclaire (No. 8, Blue Jackets). In his first four
tournament games he was 4-0-0 with a 1.00 goals-against average
and a .965 save percentage. Leclaire, the first netminder
selected last June, had 38 saves against Sweden in the
quarterfinals and 35 against Switzerland in the semis.

--Jason Spezza (No. 2, Senators). In his third trip to this
tournament, Canada's top-line center didn't dominate the score
sheet (no goals and three assists in his team's first six games)
but showed dazzling stickhandling skill and frequently
controlled the tempo of play.

Canadian Olympic Coach
Where's Scotty Bowman?

One can nitpick over general manager Wayne Gretzky's selections
for the Canadian Olympic team--why Joe Nieuwendyk over Joe
Thornton, or Ed Belfour over Sean Burke?--but there's little
dispute that the Great One has assembled a gold-medal-caliber
squad for the Salt Lake City Games. One less kibitzed-about
choice may turn out to be the most significant: Why Pat Quinn
over Scotty Bowman behind the bench?

Not to take anything from Quinn, 58, who's one of six NHL
coaches with at least 500 wins and 1,000 games, but only Billy
Reay has more regular-season victories (542 to Quinn's 506)
without a Stanley Cup. Since the principle for selecting an
Olympic team is getting the best talent at each position,
shouldn't tapping the 68-year-old Bowman, who a) is the
winningest NHL coach, b) has a record-tying eight Stanley Cups
and c) is the best bench coach in league history, have been a
no-brainer? "I don't know why I wasn't asked," Bowman says. The
Canadian Hockey Association (CHA)--the Olympic team's governing
body, which chose both Gretzky and Quinn--didn't return SI's
calls for comment.

Speculation about the snub centers on Bowman's decision to
withdraw from coaching Canada's 1996 World Cup team. Bowman
selected the roster and then inexplicably resigned three months
before the tournament, leaving the squad to replacement coach
Glen Sather. (Canada lost to the U.S.) Bowman's pullout rankled
CHA officials, but bygones should be bygones. If the fiasco in
Nagano, in which Canada lost a shootout to the Czech Republic
with Gretzky stuck on the bench, taught any lesson, it's that a
country's failing to use its best can be the difference between
a medal and a flop.

COLOR PHOTO: GERRY THOMAS Despite playing behind a young defense, Khabibulin leads the NHL with a .933 save percentage.



Whom Would You Rather Have?

Kenny Jonsson
The 12th pick in the 1993 draft had four goals and six assists
in 36 games through last Wednesday. He had only 236 career
penalty minutes.

Brendan Witt
The 11th pick in the 1993 draft had no goals and two assists in
33 games through last Wednesday. He had 639 career penalty

THE VERDICT: Witt is much more physical, but Jonsson is a fine
passer and decision-maker who rarely takes a bad penalty. He's
our guy.

--Mark Beech