Can Pekka Rinne Bounce Back?
If you were looking for a blueprint on how to be a successful National Hockey League franchise, the Detroit Red Wings would have to be your first stop. You wouldn’t get much argument from hockey fans that Detroit has been a model of consistency over the last two decades, since they have made the playoffs for 22 straight seasons. Being that good for that long requires great players, coaching, and top of the line scouting, since you often draft late in the first round.
So after Detroit, who would be next on the list when it comes to consistency? Well, it wouldn’t be crazy to suggest their division rival the Nashville Predators. At least over the past decade anyway. The Preds have made the playoffs in seven of the past nine seasons, and have had the same coach and general manager throughout their entire existence. If that’s not consistency, I don’t know what is.
Not only that, but Nashville hasn’t had a Top 5 draft pick in almost fifteen years, and their payroll is almost always near the bottom of the NHL. Getting the results they have been able to achieve is truly remarkable.
With that being said though, Nashville suffered through a difficult season in 2013 and failed to make the playoffs. Whether it was the shortened year, the loss of key components, or injuries, the Predators definitely didn’t look like themselves. One such player who had an off year was goaltender Pekka Rinne. Coming off two straight Vezina nominations, Rinne’s numbers took a hit in 2013 and he finished with a save percentage of .910, a career low. Not that his numbers were horrible this season, but they are not the type of statistics Nashville and Rinne owners are accustomed to.
Despite his less than stellar play this year, what are the chances that this was just an anomaly for Rinne, as opposed to a trend? Can poolies trust Rinne as a top five goalie for next season?
To answer that, we need to look at team variables that changed in 2013, as well as Rinne’s play itself. Losing a defenseman of Ryan Suter’s caliber is obviously going to have a negative impact on any goaltender’s play. His above average shot blocking and the ability to help take some of the workload off Weber when it came to playing against the opposition’s top lines, were clearly missing from this year’s Predators squad.
In addition to the loss of Suter, Nashville wasn’t as sharp in certain areas as they have been in the past. The first one that comes to mind is penalty killing. Even though on most occasions giving up a power play goal is rarely a goaltender’s fault, poolies won’t take any solace in that fact because it still hurts their netminder’s stats. In 2011-12 the Preds had a top 10 penalty kill, but this season their percentage dropped down to just over 75, which was good enough for second last in the NHL.
Nashville also took a tailspin in another important defensive area that often gets overlooked; takeaways. The team ranked fourth overall in that category in 2011-12 when Rinne posted a .922 save percentage, but this year they fell out of the top 10 in that area. Takeaways translate directly into puck possession, and when you have the puck your opponent can’t score. Let’s hope not anyways.
If the Predators hurt Rinne by their performance in the aforementioned two categories, they both aided and hindered him when it came to shots on goal. Nashville was giving up more quality shots than they did in 2013 as Rinne was seeing pucks from an average distance of about 33ft on the campaign, compared to over 35ft in 2011-12. Relying on your goalie to make saves with a greater degree of difficulty can lead to more goals given up over the entire year. Even if a difference of two feet seems menial, it means a lot considering the shot speeds in the NHL.
Although the Predators were conceding shots to their opponents in more dangerous areas, the team did do a good job of limiting the total shots against. Nashville was giving up over 30 shots a night last year, but this season they moved up into the top 10 and were only allowing 27. In theory, a difference of three shots per game should leave your goalie with plenty left in the tank for the end of the campaign and a playoff run. Unfortunately for the Predators this was a shortened season and they didn’t even sniff spring hockey.
If there is a reason to be concerned with Rinne, it might be with some of the kinds of goals he let in. He was giving up a few more saveable goals in 2013 and that is always worrisome for a poolie. In 2011-12, Rinne had an outstanding save percentage of .962 on shots from 30-45ft. Those are typically the ones a goaltender shouldn’t be letting in unless there are extenuating circumstances, like a screen or deflection. However, this season Rinne dropped down to a .945.
Rinne has been such an integral part of Nashville’s success in recent years because of their style of play. The Preds employ a tight checking system in hopes of limiting the opposition’s scoring opportunities. Since the Predators are about as creative as a ham and cheese sandwich when it comes to offense, having a goalie that doesn’t give up bad goals is crucial. They simply don’t have the firepower to overcome it. Normally they survive on grinding out one-goal games, but in 2013 they weren’t so lucky. Nashville tied for the league lead with 16 one-goal losses and had the second worst winning percentage in games decided by a single tally. Had a couple of those gone in the other direction it could have been the difference in the Preds making the playoffs, and really helped Rinne’s win totals.
In fantasy hockey you are typically much less concerned about longevity, as opposed to how a player is doing in the here and now. Rinne’s play wasn’t elite this season, but the Predators as a whole probably played a large role in that. The team in front of a goalie has a lot to do with his fantasy numbers, so perhaps the question shouldn’t be can Rinne bounce back, but rather can Nashville bounce back?
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