“Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
While this famous quote is attributed to Mark Twain, it is a statement Pekka Rinne may make when he bounces back from his current goaltending slump.
It is easy to understand why the whispers of a “passing of the goaltending guard” have grown louder in recent weeks. At 37, Rinne is tied for third-oldest active goalie in the NHL this season. With a contract only through the 2020-2021 season, you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that Rinne is playing his twilight games. Also, Rinne’s save percentage of .810 over the last five games is a stat that can’t be ignored. With a young heir apparent in Juuse Saros, the path forward for the Nashville Predators’ goaltending future seems clear. Could this really be the end of the reign of Rinne?
Before you wistfully hang up your #35 jersey for good, here is why fans shouldn’t be ready to close the chapter quite yet on the Rinne years.
Age affects everyone. Rinne is the oldest active goalie in the Central Division (interestingly, the Western Conference has the five oldest goalies), but he is also in net behind the defense with the oldest average age in the division. The Predators’ defenders’ average age is a cultured 29.4 years, and before you blame that all on Dan Hamhuis, remember we also have one of the youngest defenders in Dante Fabbro. (Without Fabbro, the Predators’ defenders average a sophisticated 31.2 years old.)
What does the age of the defense have to do with quality of play? Well, maybe not much. More potential for wear and tear and injuries of course, but with age also comes experience and chemistry, which is evident watching the trio of twenty-nine year olds in Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, and Roman Josi. If there are upsides to age and experience for a defender, why is aging discussed as only a negative for goalies? As a middle-aged woman, let me remind everyone—age is not a disease, nor should a number automatically signal the end of a career.
Of course, there are other troubling numbers with regards to Rinne besides his age. His save percentage over the last five games is, as noted, an excruciating .810. That’s a number that is without a doubt problematic. Red-flag-worthy. A career winding down with a whimper.
This is not Pekka’s first slump, and while that fact doesn’t seem like something that would make fans feel reassured, it should. In January 2016, Rinne limped through a stretch that resulted in a five-game save percentage of .803. He also ended 2016 in a statistical valley with an early December five-game save percentage at .842. Two months later, in mid-February 2017, Rinne’s numbers tanked again through a five-game stretch with a save percentage at .817. Why look at these numbers and feel better? Because he came out of each of those slumps with strong goaltending once again. In fact, that rocky 2016-17 preceded three rounds of lights-out goaltending in the playoffs, propelling the Predators to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in franchise history.
Rinne isn’t so much too old as he is inconsistent at times. That doesn’t make his current struggle any easier to watch, but it should take the edge off of the emotional impulse to sit him on a horse and tell him to ride off into the sunset. Rinne may be having a crisis of confidence, but he has shown he can snap back. No one should be surprised if he does it again this season.
Having Juuse Saros at the ready is also a contributing factor to the Rinne retirement chatter. With an heir apparent nipping at his skates, the obvious response to a rough stretch from Rinne is to declare his reign over. While fans have bemoaned subpar defensive play in the past (and not immediately followed that up by suggesting some of our defensemen are at the end of their careers), the Predators have a goaltending inconsistency issue. It isn’t a problem if one goalie is hot while the other is not, but that hasn’t been the case.
Both Rinne and Saros are having a season of inconsistency. During the November debacle, Rinne and Saros created a perfect storm of mediocrity with a combined save percentage of .790. Seeing poor goaltending that can’t be blamed on poor defense is a newer phenomenon in Smashville, and the automatic head tilt this causes can lead people to jump to the conclusion that Rinne’s days are over. Both Saros and Rinne need to pull a Stella and get their groove back—and soon.
Of course, the reality is that at some point Rinne’s years in between the pipes will come to a close, and each passing game brings us closer to his hockey epilogue. While he has been able to stave off many of the ravages of Father Time, eventually a sad day will come when Rinne skates off the ice for the last time. But this isn’t how any Predators fan wants to see it happen.
Rinne deserves to end his career skating off the ice holding the Stanley Cup high, but many excellent hockey players don’t get the ending they deserve. Rinne has the ability to pull himself out of this slump, though, and forge ahead towards the fairy tale ending.
Now we wait and see if he does.