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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What does Khudobin trade mean for the goalie position in 2011 draft?

The Boston Bruins made an interesting under-the-radar acquisition yesterday at the trade deadline, moving underwhelming defenseman (and impending RFA) Jeff Penner and the RFA rights to Mikko Lehtonen, he of the excellent SEL season of more than a point-per-game for Kazakhstan-born Russian goalie Anton Khudobin yesterday. As of now, this looks like a high-upside move in that Peter Chiarelli unloaded two prospects who weren't a part of Boston's future going forward, while acquiring a veteran goalie who could be.

What intrigues as it pertains to the 2011 NHL Draft is whether the Bruins will spend any of their seven selections on help between the pipes? That is a question we will attempt to address here, but first, some analysis on the newest Bruin:

The most immediate reason for Khudobin is pretty simple: Boston's AHL affiliate in Providence needed a shakeup in net. Veteran Nolan Schaefer, acquired in the off-season for stability, has not played to expectations, forcing Rob Murray and co. to go with the combination of rookie Mike Hutchinson and the inexperienced Matt Dalton more than they wanted to.

"Hutch" has a lot of potential, but he's not ready to shoulder the load in the AHL. He played pretty well for the Reading Royals of the ECHL,and has at times alternated between looking very good in Providence and simply being in over his head. Dalton, who lost the Providence spot to Hutch at the beginning of the year, swapped out with the rookie pro in January and played very well early on before hitting the skids and going back down to Reading. He's a gamer, but doesn't figure to be much more than a minor league journeyman goalie. With Schaefer playing poorly, and no other viable options in the system for the AHL club, the B's appear to have hit on a player who could stabilize the position and allow Providence at least to compete for a playoff spot.

Khudobin, born in Kazakhstan but a member of Team Russia in international competition, has some similarities to Tim Thomas in that he lacks the prototypical size that NHL teams expect in modern goalies and plays more of an unconventional (read: flopping, flailing) style than many of the technical, butterfliers of today. Like Thomas, Khudobin is a character known for his battling, never-give-up-on-the-play antics, and like Thomas early in his NHL career, acquitted himself very well in limited action with the Wild, but has never been given a shot to take the ball and run with it at the highest level. Could Khudobin be another NHL success story in waiting?

There is the potential to keep this Cinderella tale from unfolding in Boston, however.

Although CapGeek.com has him listed as a RFA when his current contract expires this summer, Khudobin clearly meets the criteria for Group 6 Unrestricted Free Agency: He'll be 25 when his deal is up, has at least three full professional seasons under his belt and has played less than 28 NHL games combined in regular season and playoffs (and barring catastrophe for Boston in net, he won't exceed that number). Will the Bruins be able to convince a player who was rumored to have talked of going over to the KHL in the summer where he can be a starter to stay in North America, even when he's behind two more terrific options in Thomas and Tuukka Rask? Now, assuming that he is a UFA, the Bruins will have to weigh the desire to keep him in the system while fighting off potential suitors in both the NHL and KHL; for any team who has scouted him and sees him as viable option for them, even if in backup status, they'll have a leg up on the Bruins, who have a clearly established 1-2 goalie hierarchy.

For the time being, Khudobin, who once faced 84 shots while a member of the Saskatoon Blades (where his teammates included former Bruins prospect Wacey Rabbit, one of the all-time great hockey names) should give Providence some legitimate puckstopping ability,freeing the younger guys to develop without the added pressure of feeling they have to play mistake-free hockey. Schaefer has been a huge disappointment, and Hutch, while he should be lauded for the job he has done at times, needs to be set up for success, not failure.

All of this raises interesting questions about whether Khudobin, especially if he is retained, will affect the team's strategy for picking a goaltender in the upcoming draft.

Hutchinson was a third-round pick in 2008, and last year, the B's grabbed a nice value selection in the sixth round with Zane Gothberg, a long-term but high-payoff potential prospect who will probably play another season in the USHL in 2011-12 before moving on to the University of North Dakota. That will depend on what junior Brad Eidsness and sophomore Aaron Dell do, but Gothberg has been a backup with the Fargo Force this year and could use a season as starter before he moves on to the NCAA.

Based on Khudobin's performance from here out, the B's will have an idea as to whether they can and will commit to him. He provides legitimate insurance in the system as a goalie with albeit limited, but impressive NHL experience (4-1, 1.39 GAA, .955 save percentage, 1 shutout) in six games and is a nice third goalie/emergency option for the team if the unthinkable happened to its top-two players in net.

Assuming the Bruins were to commit to Khudobin and convince him to sign with Boston rather than hit free agency (a pretty bad assumption considering his potential leverage on the open market and fielding offers from both NHL and KHL teams) you won't see much in the way of goalies picked in the 2011 draft unless a value pick falls into their lap, much the way Gothberg did last June.

With the exception of Bill Ranford way back in 1985, Boston has always had better success taking goaltenders later on in the draft. Need we remind anyone of the Evgeni Ryabchikov disaster? Hannu Toivonen was also one of the great first-round disappointments for this team, but at least he made it to the NHL. Even second-rounder Paxton Schafer, 47th overall in 1995, was a bust for the Bruins, lending more credence to the theory that they don't need to draft goalies with high picks.

Rask was a first-rounder, but selected by Toronto, even though the Bruins were prepared to take him at 22nd in 2005 had the Leafs not snaked him with one pick prior. The Bruins have had only a limited amount of goalies groomed and developed through their system, John Grahame being one of them, a late round pick taken just 12 spots after Thomas in 1994's ninth round. Even late 90s backup Rob Tallas was an undrafted free agent, so the team has learned over the years that spending high picks on goalies isn't the best use of capital. And then of course, Andrew Raycroft, the last Bruin to win the Calder Trophy as NHL Rookie of the Year and the piece that went to Toronto for Rask (infamously) in 2006, was a fifth-round selection in 1998, the 135th player taken that year and arguably the best to come out of that moribund class of goalies. Raycroft was just the 12th goalie picked in that draft, but he's risen above all others with only Antero Nittymaki (6th round) to challenge the Rayzor for 1998 goalie supremacy (though that's not saying much).

So there you have it. The Bruins may or may not pick a goalie in June, but even if they do, it will likely come later, and only if they assess that the player in question carries the kind of value that makes it worthwhile. In our assessment, there is just one netminder in this class who might buck that trend, and that would be Samu Perhonen of JyP Jr. in Finland.

This post has run long, so we'll be back today with an analysis of Perhonen and other goalie options for the 2011 draft to close out this argument. But, suffice to say that Anton Khudobin addresses an immediate organizational need with some intriguing longer-term potential. The B's may have to get creative to keep him in the mix, however. And we won't know whether they'll even want to do that until we see him in action for the Baby B's.

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