It's a little more than a month until the puck drops for the first Coyote preseason game for 2013, and the goaltending situation for this year is in good hands. In fact, goalie has long been a position of strength for the Coyote franchise. With that in mind, it's time to determine the greatest #35 in the history of the Coyote franchise. What does the number 35 have to do with goaltending, you may ask. The answer is simple, goalies are the only individuals to ever suit up in a sweater with 35 on it in Jets/Coyotes history.
Seven different goalies have worn 35, including the first ever Cuban-born NHL player, Al Montoya. Out of those seven men, the debate for who deserves the honor of being the best comes down to two, Bob Essensa and Nikolai Khabibulin. To choose between the two, it's time to crunch some numbers.
Essensa was a 4th round pick of the Jets in the 1983 entry draft. He made his NHL debut on February 13, 1989 against the Detroit Red Wings, earning a 2-2 tie. Over the course of 6 seasons in Winnipeg (he would also spend the 1999-2000 season in Phoenix for reasons to be covered, but he wore the number 31), Essensa appeared in 281 games earning a 116 wins, 114 losses and 32 ties for a 44.3 winning percentage. His peripheral numbers included a 3.38 goals against average (GAA), .894 save percentage (SV%) and 14 shutouts. In the playoffs, Bob played in 11 games finishing 4-5 with a 3.47 GAA and a .883 SV%. Essensa was named to the 1988-89 NHL all-rookie squad, earning 1st team honors. He finished in the top 5 statistically in games played twice (3rd in 92-93, 5th in 93-94), and once each in saves (2nd in 92-93), wins (5th in 92-93 with 33), save percentage (2nd in 91-92 with .910), and goals against average (5th in 91-92 with 2.88). He would also lead the league in shutouts in 1991-92 with 5 and was second the year before with 4. In March of 1994, Essensa would be traded to Detroit for goalie Tim Cheveldae and future fan favorite Dallas Drake. Essensa was expendable because the Jets had another goalie coming up the pipeline. His name was Nikolai Khabibulin.
Khabibulin was a 9th round pick for Winnipeg in the 1992 entry draft. He would make his NHL debut on January 21, 1995 against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. He came on as 3rd period replacement for the aforementioned Cheveldae and would stop all 4 shots he faced. His first start would come on January 27, also against Anaheim and Nikolai would lose 3-2. Over the course of 5 full seasons in Winnipeg and Phoenix, Khabibulin would see action in 284 games going 126-113-30 for a 46.8 winning percentage. He would post a 2.75 GAA and a .908 SV% along with earning 21 shutouts. Nikolai would be named to the NHL All-Star team in both the 1997-98 and the 98-99 seasons. In the playoffs, Nikolai played in 24 games, going 10-13 with 1 shutout and a 2.75 GAA and a .916 SV%. He would finish in the top 5 statistically twice each for games played (3rd in 96-97 with 72, and 4th in 97-98 with 70), shutouts (2nd in 96-97 with 7 and 3rd in 98-99 with 8) and minutes (4th in 96-97 with 4091 and 5th in 97-98 with 4029), while doing so once for wins (5th in 98-99 with 32), saves (5th in 96-97 with 1901) and save percentage (5th in 98-99 with .923). Khabibulin's tenure with the Coyotes would not end well, as he refused to report for the 1999-2000 season due to a contract dispute. He would not play at all in that year, causing the Yotes to sign, who else, Bob Essensa as a free agent in September of that year. The following offseason, the Coyotes shipped Khabibulin, along with Stanislav Neckar, to Tampa Bay for Mike Johnson, Paul Mara, Ruslan Zainullin, and a draft pick.
After looking at the numbers, it's easy to see who the greatest number 35 in Coyote history is. While he may never have played his best in Phoenix when it mattered most (cough, the playoffs, cough), Khabibulin's overall numbers push him past Bob Essensa to be the greatest number 35 in Coyote history. Congratulations go out to the Bulin Wall, even if he will probably never, ever be cheered in Phoenix again.