by Ed Neely
Pekka Rinne is a freak…No. Seriously. He is a freak. That may not seem like a nice thing to say about our goalie, but he is a freak of nature and I would not change that one bit. When you look at his body of work this season, you can’t help but come to this conclusion.
Many people, especially those who are prone to see the sky falling at every sign of difficulty, have said that Rinne is “washed up”, “is over the hill”, “killing this team” or “cost us the Stanley Cup last year.” These statements, which have been coming in almost rapid-fire succession since Pekka had hip surgery, are so completely ignorant of the facts that it is painful. Every time a backup came into the crease and won a game, people would anoint them as the replacement for Rinne and call for a trade, then when Pekka had a good game they would say he was back and all would be right with the world. These people really either need a Xanax or a swift kick in the pants.
Rinne had hip arthroscopy in May 2013 and, due to a subsequent hip infection, was out until March 2014. If you look at his numbers before and after the surgery, he is on par with where he was in the years he was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy. Pekka came in 2nd in the running for the Vezina in 2011, 3rd in 2012, and 2nd in 2015. In these years he had a save percentage of .930 (2011), .923 (2012) and .923 (2015). When you compare this with the .926 that he has this year, it is easy to see that he is having one of the best years of his career and is above his career average of .918. He is currently on pace to play 64 games this season and face nearly 2,100 shots on the season. The only year he has faced more than 2,100 shots was the 2011-2012 season in which he played 73 games. This may give you some reason for concern, but Rinne has long said that he plays better when he faces a higher shot volume.
In defense of some of the “sky is falling” people, there have been times over the last couple of seasons where Pekka Rinne has looked like a mere mortal. His .908 save percentage and 2.48 goals against average during the 2015-2016 season were his worst numbers since the 2009-2010 season. The 15-16 season had some things in common with the 09-10 season. The Preds had little experience blue-line depth beyond the top pairing. In the 09-10 season, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter were the top pairing and in 15-16 Weber was paired up with Roman Josi. Other than the top pairing, the earlier group included a mix of young and journeymen defensemen. The same was true with the 15-16 corps who were made up of guys like a much younger Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis and Seth Jones along with older guys like Barrett Jackman. The 15-16 Weber/Josi pairing was a combined -10 +/- rating and averaged nearly 6 minutes more time on ice than any other skater. This is because they went up against the top forward lines and played on both the penalty kill and power play.
The first half of the 16-17 season was very up and down with Rinne going a paltry 1-4-1 in October and then a dominant 9-1-2 in November only to go 3-5-2 in December. The second half of the year saw Rinne getting back to his Vezina caliber form which he carried through the first three rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Rinne was, by any objective measure, the primary reason the Predators made it to the Cup Final last season. He went 14-4 in the first three rounds and had a .940 save % and a GAA of 1.55. Regardless of what you might think of his Stanley Cup Final performance, his body of work in the first three rounds is one for the ages, and his 17-18 campaign has continued with this level of greatness.
I can’t definitively say what has changed in Pekka’s game over the last few months, but it does appear that the way he approaches the game has changed. It may be a change in Rinne’s psyche or in something that goalie coach, Ben Vanderklok, has been working with him on, but he appears to be calmer in the crease. Pekka has long been known for his freakish glove hand and flexibility, but this year he has given up far fewer rebounds off the body and seems to collapse around any loose puck. Pekka is also protecting the five hole better than at any time in his career. The combination of not biting on fakes and using the stick to protect gaps left by movement has resulted in far fewer shots going through the wickets than ever.
Pekka Rinne’s career stats are to be admired and place him in pretty rare company. He is 45th on the all-time wins list by a goalie. He has 45 shutouts, which is more than any other Finnish-born player, 4th among active players and 31st among all goalies in history. Rinne’s .917 save % is good enough for 12th all-time. His 2.38 GAA places him at 8th best on the list of active players and 24th all-time. In terms of wins, career GAA and save %, nearly every eligible player ahead of him on the all-time lists has been voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Whether that happens for Rinne or not has yet to be seen, but his numbers make a pretty good case.
So, will the Predators sign Pekka Rinne to a new contract at the end of this season or will he hang up his skates? That is a great question and one that will divide the fan base and prognosticators alike. Regardless of the decision by GM David Poile and Rinne alike, the remainder of his contract and career should be quite entertaining and the Preds future in net will be in question…But that is a topic for another day and another article.