|No team in the league relies on its goaltender more than the Nashville Predators. (Getty Images)|
Without him, I'm not sure this is a playoff team, or anything close to it. He might be the most important player in the NHL when it comes to the success or failure of his team.
When the Predators signed Rinne to a seven-year, $49 million contract extension last season, I wasn't convinced it was the right investment for the team at the time.
Not necessarily because I didn't think Rinne was good, but because I'm generally not a fan of long-term investments in goaltenders. For one, there is the often volatile nature of the position (these guys can be as unpredictable as any other position in sports), and because Nashville has had so much success as an organization over the years in finding capable players in net. There's also the old Ken Holland school of thought where there isn't much of a difference between the fifth-best goalie and the 20th-best goalie in terms of performance, but there is a huge difference in terms of salary.
All of those factors added together made it seem like a risky investment for Nashville at the time, especially with the upcoming free agency status of defensemen Shea Weber (they kept him after matching Philadelphia's enormous RFA offer sheet) and Ryan Suter (they ended up losing him to Minnesota). I believed (and still do) that it's easier to find a good goaltender in the NHL than it is to find a franchise defenseman.
The exception to that is when the goalie you're talking about is as good -- and important -- as Rinne. It was clear that Nashville considered him to be its most important player and acted accordingly by giving him one of the largest goaltender contracts in the NHL.
And it's a good thing they did.
A little over a year later, I'm prepared to admit the error of my ways when it comes to Rinne and Nashvile because I'm not sure where this team would be without him. The Predators enter Tuesday's game against Detroit with a 7-4-5 record, good enough for fifth place in the Western Conference. This despite being the lowest scoring team in the league and, for the second year in a row, one of the worst possession teams in the league.
So how are they still able to collect points, win games and compete for a playoff spot?
They have the best damn goalie in the NHL. And they rely on him more than any other team in the league relies on its goaltender. Not only in terms of the workload that he's asked to carry by playing nearly every single night, but also in the number of shots that he's asked to face.
Since the start of the 2010-11 season, only one goalie (Cam Ward) has appeared in more games and faced more shots than Rinne. And despite that workload, he is still among the NHL's elite at the position with a .927 save percentage (only Boston's Tim Thomas is ahead of him over that stretch).
If you go back a little further, when he became Nashville's clear No. 1 goalie in 2008-09, only four goalies (Thomas, Tuukka Rask, Tomas Vokoun, and Henrik Lundqvist) have posted a higher save percentage than Rinne's .922 over that stretch. Nashville's other goalies over that stretch, Dan Ellis and Anders Lindback, combined for a save percentage of .907.
On Monday afternoon, Chris Mason, Nashville's newest backup, gave up six goals on 18 shots during a 6-5 loss to Colorado. He's stopping fewer than 89 percent of the shots that he has faced this season.
What does that mean for the Predators?
Let's look at last year's team as an example, one that finished with the fourth-best record in the West (104 points) and advanced to the second round of the playoffs.
That team was dominated territorially every night and not only posted one of the league's worst shot differentials (minus-3.8 per game) but was also the second-worst team in the league in terms of FenTied, a measure of how many shots are directed at the net when the score is tied. This is important because it gives you an understanding of how well a team plays when the game is on an even playing field and shot totals aren't being affected by one team sitting back and protecting a lead late in the game or another team desperately trying to come from behind.
It's usually a pretty good indicator of how good a team is and whether it will make the playoffs. The Predators were just one of two teams in the bottom half of the league in FenTied to actually make the postseason a year ago (Phoenix, No. 18, was the other -- and like Nashville, the Coyotes also relied heavily on strong goaltending).
In other words: Most of the time last season, the Predators were stuck in their own end of the ice and relying on Rinne to bail them out.
If you're going to play that way, you'd better be sure your goaltender is good enough to make a difference. And Rinne was, stopping more than 92 percent of the shots that he faced, one of the best marks in the entire league.
Look at it this way: If he had been simply a league-average goalie for the Predators in terms of save percentage and faced the exact same number of shots, that would have meant Nashville would have given up somewhere between 22 and 26 more goals than it did during the 2011-12 season. That would have most likely pushed the Predators from a top-four seed in the West to a team on the playoff bubble and perhaps out of the top eight all together.
The same thing is happening this year.
The Predators are again getting dominated in terms of puck possession and are getting outshot by three-and-a-half shots per game. That is a terrible number. They enter Tuesday's game 20th in the NHL in FenTied (in 2010 and 2011, only two teams finished 20th or worse in FenTied and still made the playoffs -- last year's Predators and the 2011 Anaheim Ducks) and, as mentioned above, are the lowest scoring team in the NHL. Even worse is the fact they're generating just 23 shots on goal per game, making their offense look even more anemic. The Predators' offense last season was dependent on an extremely high shooting percentage (more than 10 percent), a number that they shouldn't have been expected to maintain. And this season they're not, as it has dropped to the pack. Fewer shots obviously means fewer goals.
But they're still winning games. Why? Rinne, of course, and he is playing even better than he did a year ago, with a .938 save percentage.
General manager David Poile and coach Barry Trotz have done a tremendous job in Nashville over the years winning on a limited budget and creating a pipeline of talent through their farm system to continue restocking the cupboards when players move on to new clubs.
But over the past two years, the success of the system and the ability to compete for a playoff spot has been pretty dependent on one player and one player only: Pekka Rinne.
As he goes, the Predators go.