What if I told you the key to a team's success was their longest tenured, second highest paid, and returning All-Star player needing to perform slightly above league average? Without context, that seems like a ridiculous statement, but that's a common narrative this off-season when it comes to discussing the Nashville Predators and their goaltender Pekka Rinne.
Is that storyline true? Describing it as a 'Rinne or bust year' is definitely painting a broad brush on Nashville, but Rinne wasn't good for much of last season. That's not a hot take. And at 33-years-old, the Finnish goalie is probably never getting back to his Vezina finalist days.
With the spotlight on the Predators after the P.K. Subban addition, a lot of eyes in the hockey community began to analyze the Predators' roster more in depth. The best young defense core and some talented forwards up front make for an intriguing contender. But with praise also comes questions. Those questions, outside of depth scoring, were largely directed towards... No. 35.
Rinne posted the 16th worst even strength save percentage last season (.920) among goalies with at least 1,000 minutes which is a big sticking point. His save percentage in all situations among that same group of netminders ranked as the 14th worst (.907). Add Rinne's age with his injury history and you can begin to connect the dots on why this could be the weakness in an otherwise very promising team.
It's a situation that five years ago would have be seemed unfathomable to imagine due to Rinne's heroics on almost an every night basis with a less than stellar group of skaters in front of him. Shea Weber and Rinne carried the mantle as the face of the franchise, so the thought of possibly becoming the weak link on a contending team has to be a hard transition.
However, Rinne has proven he ups his game when his back is against the wall. During a particularity rough stretch in January, Rinne told Adam Vingan of The Tennessean, "It's been frustrating. But I obviously expect a lot from myself and it is tough when you feel like there's room for you to improve and help your team."
His last 20 starts of the regular season saw him lose only twice in regulation and compile a .921 save percentage.
The playoffs, albeit against very talented teams, as a whole was a sub par .906 save percentage for Rinne in 14 games, but he stood tall when it matter most. In Game 6 and especially Game 7 against Anaheim, Rinne put together his best performance of the season with 70 saves on 72 shots between the two games. Anything less than a goalie clinic likely sends the Predators home and creates a completely different outlook on the success of the team.
Rinne's inconsistency likely stems from a few things. Despite his poor regular season, he started the third most games in the NHL. Whether it was the lack of confidence in Carter Hutton or the Finnish goalie's persistence to play as much as possible, the heavy workload takes it toll.
Another aspect of the Rinne's game that has taken criticism comes from his innate ability to try for the spectacular save. While that sounds like a good attribute, his over-aggression in the blue paint at times can become a crutch. The feeling of "I have to be Superman for my team" comes with downfalls.
Marleau goal pic.twitter.com/YCQ4Cq46Qo— Stephanie (@myregularface) May 4, 2016
That's an extreme scenario, but you get the point. It could be as simple as coming out too far to cut off the shooter's angle only to become susceptible to a pass or rebound, but Rinne is at his best when he doesn't try and do too much.
The Predators don't need "ImPEKKAble" between the pipes anymore. Rinne should have plenty of motivation coming into the season after an off-season of questions about his ability going forward. If he can channel that pressure and negative noise into becoming a more consistent netminder, the sky is the limit for the entire team.
Stats via Corsica.hockey.