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|Second stint with Hawks could be sweeter for Khabibulin
14 сентября 2013 года. By Brian Hamilton, Chicago Tribune reporter
Now a 40-year-old backup, veteran goalie back with team that won two Stanley Cups while he was gone
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The call came swiftly, but the fact it came at all landed somewhere in the nebulous region between surprising and unexpected. The Blackhawks wanted Nikolai Khabibulin to play goalie for them once more, a sentiment they expressed to the player's agent, who hurried it along to his client's ears.
"I thought about it," Khabibulin said. "But not very long."
Khabibulin has come not to finish what was started but to help reinforce what has been done. He is a 40-year-old verging, in transition from the player whom the Hawks once made the highest-paid goaltender in the league to one who insures against anything happening to a goalie who brought home a Stanley Cup long after Khabibulin was gone.
He was in Chicago in the dark ages, only to leave just before everyone saw the light. Everything has changed about this franchise, but there is satisfaction in being back now and seeing that nothing has changed in the way the franchise feels about him.
"It feels the same," Hawks winger Patrick Kane said. "It's good to talk to him and see the same Nik around. He might have been in a tough situation the past couple years in Edmonton, where he was getting a lot of shots every game and maybe not so much help on defense.
"I think he's excited to be back here. I think he's going to do a great job. He seems like he's ready to go; he's in great shape. Best shape I've seen of a 40-year-old guy. And we know how hard he works, whether it's in practice or in games. It's exciting to have him back."
It was one day into training camp at Notre Dame's Compton Family Ice Arena that Khabibulin lingered in a cramped dressing room, sweat-logged but looking none the worse for wear.
The particulars of this story are well-known: the four-year, $27 million deal with the Hawks coming off a Stanley Cup win with the Lightning; the second-to-last finish in the Western Conference in his first season; the ill-fated signing of Cristobal Huet; the departure to the Oilers and four muddled seasons there while the Hawks were winning two titles.
The net is now Corey Crawford's, a fact underlined by a reported 36 million reasons in his new six-year contract. So Khabibulin can't precisely make up for lost time. He can, however, enjoy it, perhaps far more than he did before.
"Overall, it seems like there's more confidence in the room," Khabibulin said. "Whether it's the guys that have been here or the guys from the minors, it seems like there's a swagger. And that's explainable. You win two Stanley Cups in four years, it makes you that way.
"When I was here last, we just started going that way, and they just took off after that. It's a really positive atmosphere. I got to taste it a little bit at the beginning. It's that, but more now. It's really fun to be here. I anticipate this to continue."
His role coincidentally can be the same as it was during his previous stay, only with more clear intent: boosting Crawford's development as a franchise goaltender.
Before, Crawford was the burgeoning hopeful, orbiting the Hawks more than contributing. But in Khabibulin, he saw what he lacked in himself.
"The guy worked really hard," Crawford said. "Really hard. Early in my pro career, I had to work a little bit on that, my work ethic. And that was definitely the guy to look up to, how he was doing things in practice and off-ice.
"I worked pretty hard, but I wasn't in the shape I needed to be at this level. He was probably one of the best in shape, maybe out of all the guys. And in goaltending, he was always where he needed to be, right from the start. He's a guy that's always been really strong technically in the net and focused."
The maniacal approach hasn't changed, though it has been refined. Khabibulin laughed when informed about Kane's appraisal of his physical conditioning — "Well, I don't know how many 40-year-olds he's seen," Khabibulin said — but he has turned to a more "functional" approach to his workouts.
Less focus on being the strongest guy, more emphasis on exercises and training that have direct correlations to the choreography and demands of his position.
"There's more endurance and athleticism involved," Khabibulin said of hockey in general. "I feel that if I don't keep doing this, there's a bunch of young guys behind that will kick me out of the league. I have to do it. And I actually like to do it."
Now it's a matter of working out a rapport with Crawford. Ray Emery and Crawford constituted a low-angst, high-value tandem en route to the Stanley Cup. Hawks coach Joel Quenneville wouldn't specify a target number of Khabibulin appearances for the coming season, saying the players dictate that while noting that Finnish import Antti Raanta may be in the mix at some point.
But just as Crawford expects Khabibulin to have a "competitive edge" to his approach, Quenneville anticipates a "very comparable" dynamic to the one the Hawks enjoyed a year ago.
"There's a nice support group, as far as pushing and helping one another as we go along here," Quenneville said. "I think both guys will want the net, but Khabi has been around, and he understands where he fits and where he's at.
"We still haven't talked to the guys one-on-one to tell them what their roles and job descriptions are, but he's pretty aware of where he's at and how they can complement one another."
Everything is different now, and Khabibulin knows this — it's practically the entire point of him being here again. He knew half the roster, the coaches, the trainers, and he knew he could be comfortable returning to the club that had achieved everything he had imagined, only without him. And that all he would have to do is help the Hawks stay where they are.
"I liked the guys here, so obviously I followed how they did," Khabibulin said. "They did quite well, I guess."