Select Page

Ask a Pro: Khabibulin’s Habits + Dubnyk’s Evolution

Ask a Pro: Khabibulin’s Habits + Dubnyk’s Evolution

Oilers goalie Nikolai Khabibulin. Photo Cheryl Adams (Hockeybroad) via Flickr

As part of our weekly Ask a Pro segment, InGoal Magazine caught up with the Edmonton Oilers tandem of Russian veteran Nikolai Khabibulin and young Canadian backup Devan Dubnyk and gave our readers a chance to ask them questions. (Editor’s Note: This story was originally published exclusively for subscribers to the FREE weekly newsletter. Sign up for your chance to ask NHL goalies questions and read the answers first).

The results ranged from Dubnyk’s technical breakdowns and some tactical advice on post play that will help other goalies everywhere, to some in-game habits for Khabibulin that would border on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – except that the goalie himself barely seems aware he is doing it.

The Oilers were in town for the second half of back-to-back games, so time was tight, but both goalies were gracious with what they had following an optional and abbreviated morning skate, and the results were worthwhile. Look for more chances to pick the brains of NHL goaltenders every week by signing up for the InGoal Magazine free email newsletter.

InGoal reader Androo Reyes writes: “I’ve been following your blog ever since I’ve stumbled upon it on the web and finally decided to officially subscribe seeing how your next Ask A Pro will feature Nikolai Khabibulin. I’ve been a huge Khabibulin fan ever since he started playing with the Winnipeg Jets and have followed him through all his teams. I never miss a chance to see him play in my hometown Vancouver and hopefully my question will be chosen for him to answer! My question for him would be: As a huge fan of yours, I’ve always wondered about any pre game/in game rituals or superstitions you have and if you have any unique mods or tweaks done to your equipment?”

While Khabibulin says he’s not superstitious, there is one significant in-game ritual that InGoal Managing Partner David Hutchison picked up on, and it’s a doozy. But before he answers your question, Androo, let’s first outline exactly what Khabibulin does at every TV timeout:

Khabibulin starts by putting his stick on top of the net and taking a drink of water. Even on the occasions he goes to the bench first for a drink out of a different bottle – more on that below – he comes back to the net and starts his routine this way. He then skates to the boards to his right and turns back to his net and all the way across to the left boards and back.

He repeats this three more times and then skates to the right circle and cuts back towards his net, stopping just below the faceoff dot but inside the circle, facing the crowd. Then – and it appears to be an identical routine every time – he fusses with his mask around the eyes using his blocker hand, lifts his mask to blow out his nose on both sides, and checks his eyes again as he drops the mask. Before skating back to the net, he sticks the end of his stick into the pocket of his glove and pushes it out, and then adjusts his glove strap.

It is exactly the same every time. Remarkably finishes play is ready to resume, even after the times when he goes to the bench for a drink before starting the ritual. Not that it matters. If it is close he almost always has his back to the play and doesn’t appear to alter anything if they are ready to drop the puck.

The stoic Russian had a chuckle when we started asking about it:

“It’s just something I’m used to now. I don’t really pay attention to it or think about it. It’s just something that I do. I like to move the legs a little bit instead of just standing in the crease the whole time.”

Is it the same every time for the sake of normalcy no matter the situation?
“Probably, but it’s not that big a deal or anything like that.”

So if you did something different it won’t throw you off?
“While I probably wouldn’t do anything different because I’m so used to it now.”

How long have you done it that way?
“I don’t know. Honestly I have no idea.”

Sometimes you get a drink at the bench first, is it different?
“The one on the net is just plain water and the one on the bench has Pedialyte just to stay hydrated. I just use Pedialyte water and some Gator-lytes. Just to keep the salt up.”

After the skating you don’t go back to net, but instead position yourself off by the faceoff dot, looking towards crowd behind your net …
“I don’t look at the crowd,” he interjects with a smile.

Is there any visualization at that point?
“No I don’t do anything to be honest.”

Except to fiddle with your mask?
“I’m actually just trying to get the water off my headband and tap my glove and wait for those people to finish with the ice cleaning and go back in.”

And you always tap the pocket of the glove with the end of your stick.
“I just like the pocket to be pushed out. I feel like it closes better and the puck will stay in maybe. Sometimes if it gets pushed in the puck bounces out.”

So there it is, one of the most intricate, compulsive TV timeout routines we’ve seen. As for your question about equipment modifications, Khabibulin talked about switching from Bauer to Reebok coming out of the lockout:
“And now I like the P3 glove, it hurts less. I get hit a lot in seam and now I don’t have that problem. I didn’t find much different in terms of how it closes with different break, but I was switching anyways because I broke a finger in the old Bauer blocker. I missed a shot, the puck went under and broke it so I talked to some guys and they said this is the best blocker.”

Goalie Devan DubnykSpeaking of gloves, your glove positioning seemed to get higher when you went to Chicago after the lockout than I remember it from covering the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006, have you made a conscious adjustment with that?
“When I got to Chicago I always watched Ed Belfour and I liked how he looked in the net and everything looked big, I like that. I try to keep it somewhere in between. I don’t like it too low because it’s harder to get the glove up when it’s low because you are always feel like you go up and then if you have to drop it, it’s even harder. Obviously a lot of guys like (Minnesota’s Niklas) Backstrom have it up so it’s probably a mental thing.”

Khabibulin also wears a Reebok P3 leg pad, and says other than the double break, or “Turco” break on the outer roll above and below the knee they are stock:
“I like the soft pads with the double break. When my contract was up with Bauer I tried them and said `give me softest pads you can make,’ so they sent me these and took a little bit, about a month, for them to break in, but once they break they are like nice and soft. I practice for a month in a new set to get them to feel how I like them. Bauer was softer, so 7-10 days to break them in.”

And you’re the only goalie using the Torspo stick?
“I know the Torspo guys in Minnesota that bought the Finnish company.”

InGoal reader Aleksander asks what kind of goalie coaching you go growing up in Russia?
Khabibulin: “In Russia there weren’t too many goalie coaches when I was younger so basically you learn on your own from the games that you watch. So if you watch a team play in what is the Super League now, you learn from those goalies. Then when I came here my first goalie coach was Pete Peters so he wanted me to challenge shooters more and play outside the crease and stuff like that. It was fine, but when I got to Phoenix in 1997 they hired Benoit Allaire and he changed the game for me. He made me play a little deeper and I think part of it was because the game was changing, so I couldn’t do the things that I did the first couple of years without being exploited. And it really worked so I think I have been trying to follow that style from then right up until now, trying to play same.”

Would you classify it as a hybrid style, and do you see it needing to change or adapt at all now?
“The thing is what I tried to do back then is kind of create something in between, to where if you need to just kind of be there and have the puck hit your chest or whatever, then do that. But sometimes you have to react too. You can’t just go on your knees every time and hope it’s going to hit you because sometimes you are going to have to react. And now I think it’s even moreso because shooters have more time so they can pick the corners a lot easier so you have to react to the puck too.”

InGoal reader Richard Karlson asks: Does anything change now that you are sharing the net a little more with a younger goalie like Dubnyk?
Khabibulin: “Whatever works for the team and at the same time whenever I don’t play I get time to work on a few things and just keep it crisp and stay sharp.”

What do you work on in preparation from game to game?
“I see if there are any problem areas and if there are I try to fix them right away and if not just work on the things that happen the most in a game, movement, stay sharp with rebounds and puck control and things like that. I’ve always, ever since working with Benoit, I like to watch the tape after games. I feel that I have to do it to stay sharp and improve your game. Watch the clips and if I don’t like something positionally or technically or it could be anything, or anticipation, or whatever, then we just look at it.”

Speaking of Dubnyk, he was last off the ice after winning the night before, a tight 2-1 victory over the New York Islanders, but still found time to answer a couple of reader questions before rushing off to an early team bus.

InGoal reader Carl asks: what has changed since the Oilers switched from a goalie coach like Pete Peeters to Frederick Chabot now?
Dubnyk: “My first few years with Edmonton Pete Peeters helped me a lot on the mental side and with positioning and patience. That’s what we focused on the whole time and for a guy my size that’s obviously one of the most important parts of my game, so it was a huge help for me just understanding the patience side and how big I can be if I am in the right spot. And then to take that and move into a guy like Freddie, who is very technical and very specific, it’s been a great transition and he’s helped me a lot with what works.”

Has that work been more technical in terms of how move or specifically make saves, or more tactical in terms of when to use specific techniques?
“Mostly the situational stuff. You kind of look at different plays and you watch video from the game and even when you make saves and the puck doesn’t go in the net, it’s still stuff to look at where he’ll say ‘maybe let’s try this a couple of times. Here’s what you did here but maybe if we try this and get you comfortable.’ For example last year we changed on my glove side, instead of going to one-knee down on wraps I’ll put my post leg down flat on the ice.”

That’s perfect, because InGoal reader Craig M. asked if we could get one example from our Ask a Pro goalies of something they are working on that might help other goalies. So it sounds like you use something more like a paddle down now, but just not on the side where you actually have a paddle?
Dubnyk: “Exactly and that to me helped me a ton, just getting comfortable with it I just feel a lot more solid in that position and moving out of it. And it’s stuff like that, you bounce back and forth and obviously everybody is different, everybody’s body is different, so you find out what works for you and what doesn’t and try to bring it together.”

What was it that made you want to change out of 1-pad down, or VH, on that side? It seems to be more problematic for big guys like yourself.
“There are a couple things. One it is almost impossible to actually close the five-hole completely on that (glove) side. On the blocker side I have my glove to get in the hole if they shoot it there. Your hand is free and mobile. But on the glove side you have your stick and your blocker and it’s kind of tough. And also I find you can get stuck in the position, you can get locked in the one-knee down and if they pass it there is that split second it takes you to look and then shift and then move and at this level by the time you do that the puck is in the net. So I just found I felt a lot more solid and a lot less holes and also you are not stuck, whereas if the leg is down you just use that leg to push off the net and come off.”

So are you going to that glove side post with the pad and then try to bounce off with your pad if it comes back out to the middle, or trying to get skate to it?
“I usually try to get my skate to that post when I come. It’s probably best to get it just a little bit inside but it’s pretty precise to work on. I tend to go hard just skate inside the post and then you can hit the post and let your momentum turn your upper body into the short side up against the post, and then if the pass is out you just bounce off it and push back out with the skate. You just got to do a ton of reps and work on it and get comfortable with it.”

Some guys go mid-pad and try to bounce off that and back into the middle.
“It’s easier on the blocker side to do that because of the way your body is.”

About The Author

Kevin Woodley

Kevin Woodley is a rec-league target and former contributing editor of the Goalie News magazine. He has written about the Vancouver Canucks and NHL for The Associated Press, USA Today, Sports Illustrated and The Hockey News for the last decade, and covered the 2010 Olympics for The AP.