Anton Khudobin: The Long and Winding Road

Anton Khudobin has done something that very few people can claim to have accomplished. Not only has he established himself as an NHL regular, a feat in and of itself, but he did so as a 7th round pick. Drafted in that round by the Minnesota Wild in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, Khudobin beat the odds to join the likes of Henrik Lundqvist, Tomas Kaberle and Henrik Zetterberg as a late-round diamond in the rough.

According to an article by Scott Cullen of TSN, there’s only a 9.2% chance that a 7th round pick will end up playing 100 or more NHL games, a measurement used to determine whether the player is, at worst, replacement level NHL talent. Khudobin, at the moment, has played only 88 games, but considering the lack of goaltender depth in Carolina’s system and the fact Khudobin has another year left in his current contract, at least 100 games is a given.

It Won’t Be Long

Ironically, in line with the measurement tool, Khudobin started off his career as a replacement. He was in the middle of his first year as a full-time AHL player when he received his first NHL call up. An injury to Niklas Backstrom allowed him to serve as the Wild’s backup late in the 2009-2010 season, and after Josh Harding suffered an injury in a 4-2 victory over the Edmonton Oilers, Khudobin was given his first NHL start days later, a 2-1 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers where he stopped 38 of 39 shots.

He was expected to serve as the full-time backup the following season, after Harding suffered a season-ending injury in the pre-season. However, the organization instead opted to sign Jose Theodore to a one-year deal, essentially putting the writing on the wall for Khudobin.

You Know My Name

The Wild eventually traded Khudobin to the Boston Bruins in exchange for defenseman Jeff Penner and right wing Mikko Lehtonen. It was considered a minor trade at the deadline that year, especially when the Wild were dealing with the loss of their top line center Mikko Koivu to a broken finger. The deal was so minor, Minnesota’s general manager Chuck Fletcher spent more time explaining why he didn’t grab a Koivu-replacement than explaining why he traded their highly-touted goalie prospect.

“To go out and to overpay for a marginal player or a role player when our players are playing as well as they are now, that just didn’t seem to make any sense,” Fletcher said at the time, adding: “I looked long and hard over the last week, and I couldn’t find a Mikko Koivu in the marketplace.”

Khudobin wouldn’t get his first real chance with the Bruins until the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season, where he served as the backup for Tuukka Rask. Though he only played in 14 games, he posted a 9-4-2 record with a .920 SV% and a 2.32 GAA. An unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, he took advantage of every opportunity he was given to showcase his talents.

“You get all this energy before the game,” Khudobin said in an interview with the Boston Globe. “And then you have to figure out a way to keep this energy inside your body. You want to go on the ice, but you must sit on the bench. And you need to keep this energy, somehow, because you never know when you will get the call.”

Need a Little Help From My Friends

His performance with the Bruins stuck with former Carolina Hurricanes’ general manager Jim Rutherford, who signed Khudobin that off-season to back up Cam Ward. Ward had suffered a severe injury during the previous season, and that injury turned a season that started with such hope for the Canes into yet another missed opportunity. Rutherford, knowing that the Hurricanes have seen their fair share of struggles in the back up position, felt that Khudobin could serve as someone who could challenge Ward for the starting position.

In a cruel twist of fate, both Ward and Khudobin suffered injuries early in the following season, forcing the Hurricanes to rely on third-string goaltender Justin Peters until Khudobin’s recovery. Khudobin grabbed the starting position in his return to the lineup and his play kept him in that position, even when Ward returned from his injury. Playing in 36 games in the 2013-2014 season, a career high, Khudobin posted a 19-14-2 record with a .926 SV% and a 2.30 GAA.

This year has not been as successful for Khudobin, though it is not entirely his fault. After struggling in October, he lost to the starter job to Ward the following month, and it wasn’t until December that he seemed to return to form. However, despite his improved play, he was still being saddled with losses. The culprit in this case was the team in front of him.

I wrote back in December about Khudobin’s struggles. At the time, he was still looking for his first win of the season, despite making 8 starts. The biggest reason was the Canes had only scored 13 goals in those 8 games, making the margin of error for the goaltender paper-thin. Unfortunately, it has not gotten much better for Khudobin since then.

With Ward fighting through a flu bug, Khudobin has 6 starts in March. In those 6 games, he has a 1-4-2 record, but the team has scored only 10 goals in that same time span. The biggest example of this lack of scoring was in the most recent game against the Chicago Blackhawks, which saw the Canes put up 44 shots against Cory Crawford, but only manage to slip 1 goal past the Chicago goaltender. After a 3-2 loss in the shootout to the New York Rangers, head coach Bill Peters addressed the scoring issue.

“It would have been nice to have some more looks in the third period,” Peters said. “But it wasn’t meant to be. It’s been a run of bad luck in the shootout for (Khudobin). We haven’t given him enough support. He’s a solid NHL goaltender.”

Peters couldn’t be more dead on with his support comment. Of the 31 games that Khudobin has played, the team has scored only 56 goals, or 1.80 goals per game. That means as soon as Khudobin allows a second goal in a game, odds are, he’s going to be pinned for a loss, regardless of how well he’s playing.

I’ll Be On My Way

Khudobin has played only 88 games in the NHL, but the vast majority of those games have been with Carolina. After bouncing around early in his career, he appears to have found a spot that he can compete for a starter’s role. He’s also beloved by Canes fans, whether it’s for his obsession with girl scout cookie or his killer Lego engineering skills.

However, the team will need to support him a bit more if they want to keep the Kazak goaltender. No goalie likes to be on the losing end, especially playing as well as Khudobin has. With both Ward and Khudobin as potential free agents at the end of next season, the Canes could lose Khudobin to greener pastures if they don’t turn around their scoring struggles quick.