There aren't many questions the Nashville Predators have when it comes to goaltending this year. Pekka Rinne is the starter, Carter Hutton will be the back up, and there are a couple of rookies looking to make their mark in the AHL.
But while the questions are few, especially compared to last year, there still remains the issue of how much Carter Hutton can be relied on, and how that directly correlates to how many games Rinne plays.
Marek Mazanec and Juuse Saros are going to be living it up in Milwaukee, hoping to get a glimpse of some NHL time to give them a break from the snow. However, that was thought to be the case last year, but Mazanec's only saw one start and a relief appearance, and Magnus Hellberg didn't even receive a call up.
Saros isn't in a hurry for a call up, nor should he be. He's just getting settled in North America and needs time to adjust. Maz, on the other hand, could really benefit from a session or two in the majors. Though he signed a new contract at the beginning of this summer, he becomes an RFA again at the end of this year. The Preds need to be sure he's capable of serving as full-time back up to Rinne, or else find someone who might want him. (Hopefully for more than a 6th round pick.)
In his two years in a Predators' uniform, Hutton has seen two completely different ends of the goaltending responsibilities spectrum. Year one saw him thrust into a starter's job he was clearly ill-suited for, even if he did get better toward the end. Last year, thanks to a much healthier Rinne, he was basically stapled between the ball cap and the stool.
The debate rages on as to whether or not Hutton would play better if he started more. The problem is he's a backup to one of the best players in the world at the position. He isn't going to play enough to get a rhythm and, even though he should probably be utilized a little more (more on that soon), he just has to be ready for spot starts.
Hutton only appeared in 18 games in 2014-15. If it weren't for his third period interviews, many would have completely forgotten about him for weeks at a time. Only seven NHL goalie played between 700 and 800 5v5 minutes last year.
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Despite his team doing a good job of keeping the puck away from him, Hutton still had an ugly save percentage. He didn't get a whole lot of goal support though, possibly due to the team shooting around 6% with him in goal. However, the eye test doesn't paint him in the greatest light, either.
Many nights, he's just unlucky. There have been plenty of games the team has lost, and the blame has been place on him when it shouldn't be. But when there's routinely a fluke play or a soft goal let in, it starts to go beyond luck. His first start from last season is textbook Hutton: a fantastic effort undermined by a bad, flukey goal against, and a hard luck goal to lose the game.
The fact of the matter is Hutton is a below-average goaltender playing next to an elite one. He isn't supposed to be Rinne II, but he does need to give the Preds a chance to win. He didn't seem to have the confidence of the coaching staff, seeing as how he only appeared in seven games in the three-plus months before taking over while Rinne was injured. His goal this year should be to seize every start and prove to Peter Laviolette and Co. he can be relied on any given night.
Speculations on Rinne's health are in the rearview mirror. Ditto any conversations about if his level of play will hold. Instead, we should be turning our focus to how many games is he going to play, and how many games should he play.
Nashville's workhorse played 64 games last year, the most since an ungodly 73 in 2011-2012. It likely would have been even more had he not been sidelined for a bit with a knee injury. However, that workload seemed to catch up to him a bit as the year drew to a close.
As Jason pointed out before the playoffs started, Rinne's play took a serious dip in the waning weeks of the season. In his last 10 stars, seven of them saw a save percentage below .900. Then, in the series against Chicago he was outplayed by Scott Darling. He posted a less than pedestrian .909 Sv% in the six-game series. Veryn un-Rinne like.
That isn't to pin their elimination on him, or say the infamous slump was all his fault. Rinne was one of the biggest reasons of the Predators' resurgence last year, and there certainly were factors beyond his control that contributed to their losses. Still, you can't help but wonder if all that playing after being out for most of a year maybe started to wear on the soon-to-be 33-year-old netminder.
The number of goaltenders in the NHL that possess the same skill set as Rinne can be counted on one hand. He's still The Guy when it comes to the crease, and he'll continued to be heavily leaned on the next few years. He won't save 94% of the even strength shots like he did at the beginning of last season, but at this point his reliability can't be questioned. Rinne isn't the only part of the team anymore, but he'll still be one of the driving forces going forward.
Maybe having a full season back after injury will help, and he can have a similar workload this time out. After all, it was said at last year's training camp that Rinne was the best conditioned athlete in the room. Plus, it's hard to feel comfortable giving Rinne more time off when there's such a question mark with the guy behind him. But wearing out the undisputed number one before the playoffs even start can be detrimental to a team's overall playoff success.
The Predators are expected to take a step forward this year. While those expectations are true for the entire team, Rinne is going to shoulder his share of the burden, as all elite starts do. Thankfully, if the team continues like last year he doesn't have to win games 1-0 and 2-1 anymore.
But it would be great if he could get a little help from the goalies behind him, if only to keep him fresh for the games that matter the most.