By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — When last we saw Anton Khudobin, the goalie/standup comic from Kazakhstan had pooled his successful 2013 season as Tuukka Rask’s backup with the Bruins into a chance to play more with the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Hurricanes were so impressed with Khudobin during 2013-14 that they rewarded him with a two-year contract extension. And then things went haywire. Khudobin, who compiled a .914 save percentage and 2.50 goals-against average in two seasons with the Hurricanes, was traded to Anaheim, where he was stuck behind Frederik Andersen and John Gibson.
Khudobin only played nine NHL games (he had a .909 and a 2.70 GAA) and was mostly relegated to playing for San Diego of the American Hockey League last season.
So at 30 and looking for a place where he could play and be happy, Khudobin decided to return to Boston on a two-year contract worth $2.4 million total on July 1.
“It’s comfort level and everything,” said Khudobin after his first informal practice at Warrior Ice Arena on Tuesday. “I always had great conversations with players, with the coaches, with the management, no matter who it would be. When I flew here on Saturday, and I met my friends and we went on Sunday to downtown Boston, I couldn’t believe I came back. It felt like I just came back from the season. It didn’t feel like I haven’t been here for three years. It’s just a comfort level, the style of city, the people around here.”
There’s nothing but love on Khudobin’s side of this reformed marriage. On the Bruins’ side there was a case of not knowing what they had until it was gone. Khudobin played to a .920 save percentage and 2.32 GAA in 14 games during the lockout-shortened 2013 season, which led to a run to the Stanley Cup Final. Although Chad Johnson fit the bill as Rask’s backup the next season, the Bruins found out the hard way the past two seasons with Niklas Svedberg and Jonas Gustavsson that the backup role behind a high-priced No. 1 netminder isn’t a plug-and-play position.
Not only did Svedberg and Gustavsson give the Bruins inconsistent play. They also both failed to earn the trust of coach Claude Julien and the rest of the brass. So the Bruins were forced to play Rask 134 times the past two seasons, which both finished with Boston on the outside of the playoff brackets. Although Rask’s underlying numbers were still strong, observers could see him struggling against fatigue, especially with a less-talented defense in front of him last season.
Khudobin still has high expectations for his abilities but at the same time understands he might not get to flaunt his talents as often as he’d like.
“Focus on my game. Focus too to help the team get more points and higher in the standings. Think playoffs always,” Khudobin said about his goals for the season. “And this team’s always making good goals. More playing is always good for the goalies. But I know Tuukka is going to play more and he’s No. 1, so I just focus on my game and how I’m going to help the team.”
Khudobin seems to have the right attitude. Now he has to turn that into performance. Svedberg and Gustavsson also said the right things about accepting their role behind Rask. When it came time to play after long stretches of inactivity, though, the Bruins didn’t know what they were going to get. It takes a special type of athlete to stay sharp without a lot of game action and be ready when called upon.
Khudobin’s NHL numbers suffered last season when he was scarcely used by the Ducks. When he was playing well for Carolina, he was playing almost half the games. Ideally, the Bruins will use Khudobin as much, or even a little more, than they did in 2013 and that could make it easier for the backup to play his best.
It might also help Khudobin to have prospects Malcolm Subban and Zane McIntyre pushing for his job.
“You always have to compete, no matter what position you play, no matter how big is your contract,” Khudobin said. “You always have to compete, you always have to show what you’re capable of doing – whatever you’re doing, No. 1, No. 2, whatever. With our situation, if you know 100 percent you’re No. 1, it’s actually harder. So if you compete it’s always easier to show in the practices and the easier it’s going to be in the games.”
Backup goaltender has been a headache the Bruins didn’t think they were going to have the past two seasons. If Khudobin can turn his love for Boston and acceptance of the role into the type of play that makes people rest easy knowing Rask is resting, the Bruins will have a better chance of being on the right side of the cutoff line for the playoffs in the spring.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.