In a nutshell, netminding killed the Hurricanes' 2013 campaign. A season-ending injury to franchise cornerstone Cam Ward on March 3 left the inexperienced gloves and blockers of career backup Dan Ellis and underperforming prospect Justin Peters in charge of the Hurricanes' playoff run.
It didn't end well.
Recognizing how crucial the No. 2 goalie slot had become to the team's long-term success, Carolina GM Jim Rutherford cleverly pulled perhaps the summer's most enticing free-agent goaltender off the market just hours after he became fair game.
Khudobin, a 27-year-old Kazakhstan native, had a brilliant first full NHL campaign for the Boston Bruins in 2013. The 2004 seventh-round pick provided a solid backup option to stellar starter Tuukka Rask on a nightly basis and racked up incredibly good statistics in 14 appearances, as well.
Per player scouting website Hockey's Future:
Khudobin is...an intense competitor with a lot of confidence and athleticism who can play both solid technically as well as break free from his technique to make the spectacular save. He has a better glove than stick, and very quick feet. He has excellent recovery ability [and] reads and anticipates the play well.
The difference in caliber and reliability between Khudobin and an Ellis/Peters duo would've been astounding this past season. Compare their polarizing numbers from 2013 below:
*Good Games: Games with two or fewer goals allowed.
Under the radar, Khudobin put forth a sparkling campaign from beginning to end.
"We didn't see him play a bad game this year," Rutherford remarked to Canes Country's Jonathan Stout back on July 5. "He played extremely well and we fell (sic) that he can do that for us."
With Ellis signed in Dallas, Khudobin will have to outcompete Peters in next month's training camp to earn the backup job.
But we don't expect that to be much of a competition.
In Khudobin's signing, Rutherford not only vastly upgraded the Hurricanes' depth at the position, but also perhaps added a player capable of the pushing the club's increasingly injury-prone starter. Ward has now missed several months of two of the last four seasons and has seen his save percentage decline from .923 to .915 to .908 over the past three campaigns.
Consider this: Among every goaltender signed to a new contract since 2012, Khudobin's .933 career NHL save percentage is No. 1.
Ten full- or part-time starters around the league (including Cory Schneider, Braden Holtby, Semyon Varlamov, Jonathan Bernier and Brian Elliott) fall below Khudobin on that list, yet all 10 will make more than twice as much as Khudobin will ($800,000) in 2013-14.
With excellent upper-body movement—including an elite glove hand and unheralded blocker—along with the innate knowledge of where the puck will go next, Khudobin's positional and reactionary skills are many, many tiers above that of the clumsy, slow Peters.
After years of struggling through subpar backups, Carolina has found a gem of a No. 2 goaltender for the coming season.
Khudobin isn't just an upgrade to the netminding unit.
He's a burgeoning star.