Despite impressive young core, Predators need Rinne to step up again next season

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This post is part of Predators Day on PHT…

Pekka Rinne wasn’t unbeatable in the first round of the 2017 playoffs. But by the time Nashville completed its sweep of the Blackhawks, his opponents from Chicago may have felt that way.

He gave up only three goals in four games versus Chicago, and while he didn’t maintain that torrid puckstopping pace throughout the playoffs, he was an integral member of the Predators’ run to the Stanley Cup Final.

It was great for Rinne, who has been with Nashville since his selection in the 2004 NHL Draft.

It was in the final series where he struggled with consistency.

He was excellent in Games 3 and 4 in Nashville, as the Predators evened the series. He was good again in Game 6 but was unlucky on what would be the Stanley Cup winning goal to Pittsburgh. It was in Games 1, 2 and 5 that Rinne struggled, allowing a combined 11 goals against on 45 shots faced and getting the hook early in the fifth game. It was a strange, up-and-down way to end the playoffs during a two-month stretch when Rinne was otherwise excellent.

The Predators certainly have the makings of a team that can compete for the Western Conference title again next season, with an impressive young core group of forwards and a dangerous blue line, particularly with their top four.

Where things could get interesting is in goal.

Rinne turns 35 years old in November and has two more years remaining on his contract, with an annual $7 million cap hit.

He’s been the workhorse in Nashville for years. Since the 2010-11 season, Rinne has on five occasions played 60 or more games in a single season, reaching 73 games played in 2011-12. He’s averaged almost 64 games played over the last three years, and even during the lockout shortened year, he played in almost 90 per cent of the Predators’ regular season games.

It’s been well documented in the analytics community (check out some pieces here and here) that goalies start to decline through their 30s.

Goalies like Rinne, Henrik Lundqvist, Roberto Luongo and Ryan Miller — all in their mid to late 30s — have all been relied on heavily earlier in their careers and their respective teams certainly benefited. Luongo had four consecutive seasons with 70-plus starts, as did Lundqvist. That’s a lot of mileage. The days of such usage appear to be in the rear view mirror, according to Habs goalie coach Stephane Waite last month when he discussed the need for a capable back-up in order to give the starter some rest, to keep them refreshed.

These playoffs put the Predators right in the spot light, revealing to a greater audience just how good this team was and could still be over the next few years. It revealed that, when at the top of his game, Rinne could be spectacular. Nashville is still going to need him to help the franchise in achieving its goals next season.

But he also isn’t getting any younger.

Last season, 22-year-old Juuse Saros played in 21 games, posting a .923 save percentage in that time.

It may benefit the Predators in the long run to give their back-up an increase in playing time to keep Rinne refreshed throughout the season.