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Ex-mates high on Khabibulin


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001

TAMPA -- With Jay Grossman, agent for goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, indicating neither he nor his client will make any statements before a deal is done with the Lightning, others have been sought to do the talking.

Defenseman Stan Neckar didn't see a lot of Khabibulin during the 1998-99 season, the goaltender's last before his holdout began. But he saw enough.

Neckar played 17 games for the Coyotes that season; 11 during the regular season and six in the playoffs after being acquired from the Rangers.

"I felt confident playing with him," said Neckar, who came to Tampa Bay last week along with the negotiating rights to Khabibulin. "Behind the net he knows what to do with the puck. He helps the defense and makes it easier for you."

Of the opening-round playoff loss to the Blues, decided 1-0 in overtime in Game7, Neckar said, "He played great, especially around the net when they were shooting at the roof. He was unbelievable. I can just say that (loss) wasn't his fault."

Khabibulin, who never has won a playoff series, had a 2.41 goals-against average against the Blues and a .924 save percentage.

"All I can tell you is, Niki is one of the best goaltenders I've ever seen," said Coyotes forward Keith Tkachuck, one of Khabibulin's best friends. "It's unfortunate we're not going to have him here. Even though he's been off for two years or whatever, he's going to be a great goaltender. Tampa Bay got pretty damn lucky, if you ask me. We've got good goaltending here without him, but it would have been nice to have him finish his career here."

Can Khabibulin, who is asking for about $4-million a season, regain the form that sparkled in Phoenix? Coyotes goaltending coach Benoit Allaire thinks so.

"It will take him a little time to get comfortable again in the NHL, but he's 28 years old and he has a chance to get back into good shape quickly," he said. "Two years ago, Nik was a top-five goalie and he still is a top guy in the NHL right now."

Neckar said opinions about Khabibulin's holdout varied among the Coyotes.

"Some guys said he should play and some guys were behind him holding out," he said. "He knows what is best for him. I know it was hard for him to sit out. It's his decision. I hope it will work out for him."

ODDS AND ENDS: Media reports out of Edmonton have defenseman Grant Ledyard possibly being traded to the Oilers for draft picks. ... Defenseman Jassen Cullimore (strained abdominal muscle), left wing Todd Warriner (knee) and right wing Sheldon Keefe (healthy) were scratched.

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