In a matter of a few hours Friday, the Blackhawks went from having Ray Emery as their backup goalie to Nikolai Khabibulin.
Once Emery departed for Philadelphia as an unrestricted free agent for $1.65 million and the promise to compete for the starting job, Hawks general manager Stan Bowman went looking for a backup and turned to a familiar face.
“We spoke to Ray quite a bit down the stretch after the season and it became apparent, talking to his agent, he was looking for a different opportunity,” Bowman said.
“I can’t speak for him, but it sounded like he wanted to go somewhere that he had the chance to be the No. 1 guy, or a different opportunity.
“So at that point, we turned our attention to other goaltenders. It was pretty apparent when we looked at the list of goalies that were available that Nik was the best candidate for that position.”
Bowman is confident that Khabibulin can work well with Corey Crawford.
Khabibulin signed a one-year contract worth $2 million with incentives.
“We’re really thrilled to add him to our team for a number of reasons,” Bowman said. “No. 1 is that I think he will be able to be the tandem with Corey. We’ve got a goaltender who’s had an accomplished career and still got a lot of game left in him. He’s a competitive guy and wants the chance to help our team and try to come back with a strong season.
“For that reason, it was very appealing for both sides. We have a lot of familiarity with Nik. He was a really good goaltender with us and he sort of helped us get back on track as a franchise.
“It’s nice to have him here now as our team is even stronger than before.”
Khabibulin, who has a history of leg and groin injuries, played for the Hawks previously from 2005-09. He was the NHL’s highest-paid goalie at the time, signing a four-year, $27 million deal.
His last game with the Hawks was Game 3 of the 2009 Western Conference finals. He missed the last three games of the series with a leg injury as the Hawks lost to the Detroit Red Wings in five games.
The next year Khabibulin moved on to Edmonton and the Hawks won the Stanley Cup with Antti Niemi in goal. Now 40, Khabibulin was 4-6-1 with the Oilers last season with a 2.54 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage.
Khabibulin was 33-66-13 in four years in Edmonton playing behind the young Oilers.
“We were looking for someone who had not just been a backup goalie,” Bowman said. “Nik has always been a No. 1 guy. I think it’s nice that he sees enough in our group to want to come back. He knows that Corey is the guy here and is comfortable in supporting him.
“One of the things that was so evident last year was we had two top-notch goaltenders and our team never had to change their style depending who was in net. We just played the same way every night because both goalies were excellent. That’s what we see next year as well.”
Michal Handzus signed a one-year deal for $1 million, while Michal Rozsival got a two-year contract.
“We had a lot of success with this group last year, and I think Michal (Handzus) came in and in a short amount of time we could really see his value in a number of ways,” Bowman said.
“He certainly brings some size and his faceoff ability was well-documented, along with his experience level and just the fact that our coaches are really comfortable with his ability playing many roles on our team.”
Bowman said the plan still is for Brandon Pirri to come to training camp with an opportunity to win the second-line center job.
“Brandon has had some good seasons in Rockford, and I think he’s ready for the next step,” Bowman said. “We have a lot of depth at center, and they’re all young players.
“Brandon is the furthest along, but we’ve also got Drew LeBlanc, Phillip Danault and Mark McNeill. These are four young players who we’re going to give a chance in training camp.”
As for bringing back Rozsival, Bowman said it was a no-brainer.
“We’re going to have our same group coming back that we won the Stanley Cup with,” Bowman said. “We’ve got some young players who are really on the verge of breaking through, as well.
“I think with defense it’s critical that you have depth and experience, and you have players that you are really confident can get the job done.”
Bowman still must re-sign restricted free-agent center Marcus Kruger.
“We’re getting closer with Marcus,” said the GM. “We’re not quite to the finish line, but we’ve had a couple of good discussions and we’re getting close.”
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