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Why Pekka Rinne is hockey’s most polarizing goalie

Matt Larkin
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Why Pekka Rinne is hockey’s most polarizing goalie

Pekka Rinne. Image by: Getty Images

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Why Pekka Rinne is hockey’s most polarizing goalie

Matt Larkin
By:

The stats crowd is tough on him. Those who played the game say he’s elite. Who is the real Pekka Rinne, and why is he on fire?

Last year, the Nashville Predators’ success came in spite of goaltender Pekka Rinne. This year? Because of him.

Rinne was the story of the 2016-17 playoffs’ first round, stonewalling the powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks to key a Preds sweep. His numbers from the series look downright made up: a 0.70 goals-against average, .976 save percentage and two shutouts. Inhuman.

It’s easy to forget, though, Rinne found himself badly outduelled just one year ago in the playoffs, posting an .898 save percentage in Nashville’s seven-game loss to the San Jose Sharks.  That’s how quickly the narrative can change regarding the 6-foot-5, 217-pound netminder, who has become one of hockey’s most divisive players.

It wasn’t always that way for Rinne. He exploded onto the scene in 2008-09, took over the Preds’ starting job and finished fourth in Calder Trophy voting. He was a Vezina Trophy finalist in 2010-11 and 2011-12. Known for having the game’s best glove hand and for his eye-popping athleticism, honed playing Finland’s version of baseball growing up, Rinne was among the NHL’s elite stoppers. Few scoffed when he landed a seven-year, $49-million contract extension in 2011.

But as Rinne reached his 30s and his career bled into the dawn of mainstream analytics, he rapidly became the stat crowd’s favorite whipping boy. The advanced numbers such as 5-on-5 save percentage and high-, low-, and medium-danger save percentage cast Rinne in an ugly light. He earned the dreaded “overrated” tag. Heck, the stat crowd often called Rinne flat-out bad. His mainstream numbers in recent seasons reflected a different goalie that the one who first arrived in Nashville, too. He posted save percentages between .902 and .910 in 2012-13, 2013-14 and 2015-16. Nashville had a goaltender once regarded as a major strength who was being paid as such but performing as one of the game’s weakest starters, at least according to the fancy stats.

And yet, when THN surveyed 10 retired NHL goaltenders last fall to rank current ones, Rinne fared amazingly well. The panel rated 40 goalies in five categories, developed by me and ex-NHLer Corey Hirsch:

  • Goalie sense (positioning, angles, general hockey IQ)
  • Athleticism
  • Puckhandling
  • Winnability (trustworthiness in a do-or-die game)
  • Durability (health and ability to handle large workloads)

Rinne finished top-five in every category except durability, having undergone hip surgery in 2013. He rated No. 2 in athleticism behind only the L.A. Kings’ Jonathan Quick. Rinne finished second to Carey Price in the overall rankings. Anyone who played the game loves Rinne’s skill set. How can there be such a stark divide between the stats and the eyeballs?

One theory: Rinne’s style works in real life and doesn’t always produce amazing statistics. That's how former NHL goaltender and TSN analyst Jamie McLennan sees it. Rinne’s athleticism and second-to-none glove hand give him outstanding rebound control, McLennan says, and that doesn’t lead to many second and third chances. Extra rebounds and scrambles produce more shots, more saves and can pad a goalie’s stat total. He also thinks Rinne’s ability to retrieve pucks kills opposing chances.

“He’s really good at getting out and stopping pucks and helping his D out,” McLennan said. “Sometimes is it an adventure? Absolutely. But every guy has his mistakes outside the net. It’s just like anybody handling the puck. Guys turn the puck over sometimes, they fumble the puck here and there, and it’s no different for a goalie. But if Rinne has on average 20 to 30 touches per game, I would say 90 percent are good, solid plays.”

The Preds rated middle of the pack in shots allowed per game in the regular season, and the same goes for the playoffs, but they did a good job limiting high-danger scoring chances. This season Rinne had one of the league’s worst high-danger SPs when the tight chances did get through but, among the 47 goalies who played more than 1,000 minutes 5-on-5 this season¸, Rinne faced the fifth-fewest high-danger chances per 60 minutes. Among every goalie competing in Round 1 of the playoffs, he faced the second-fewest high-danger chances. So it’s true that the quality of the opportunities, at least as defined by analytics sites like corsica.hockey, have been kept at a minimum. That could support McLennan’s idea that Rinne smothers followup chances and scrambles. Rinne points to the help around him, though.

“It’s a combination of feeling good and playing with confidence, and the biggest thing is my teammates,” Rinne said. “As a team, we played a tremendous series and best hockey of the season for me. That’s the biggest difference for me but also, personally, it helps when you gain more experience and feel more comfortable all the time, and you know what to expect, and you get to play against a team you know pretty well.”

Still, Rinne’s ridiculous run against Chicago had to be more than just him and his teammates doing what they always do well. Rinne might not have been tested a lot, but his high-danger SP was .933. He allowed one goal 5-on-5 in the whole series against the Hawks, good for a .991 SP. Rinne’s regular season numbers entering the playoffs also improved compared to last season, too. He’s more than merely hot for four games. He’s been an all-round better goaltender this year. What has he changed?

Rinne says he hasn’t made any major technical changes to his makeup this season. He doesn’t believe in overhauling, so he and Nashville goaltending coach Ben Vanderklok didn’t mess around too much. Rinne does think he’s worked on playing a more fluid game.

And that supports McLennan’s analysis, too. He sees Rinne as a goalie so athletic that it sometimes works against him and makes him too active in the net, creating holes, and thinks Rinne has looked a bit calmer and more in control in the crease of late.

So maybe what we’re seeing in Rinne is a delicious cocktail of (a) calmness, (b) rebound control, limiting followup chances and (c) help from his team, including a fabulous blueline top four of Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis. The Preds’ parts have combined to produce a style that limits the number of top-end chances on Rinne, and he’s swallowed up whatever does get through.

He’ll have to hope he can maintain it in Round 2 opposite the St. Louis Blues’ Jake Allen, who was also dynamite in Round 1. Rinne recognizes he’s playing some of his best hockey ever, but he’s wary about sample sizes.

“If you just look at the numbers and stuff, of course that kind of thing is hard to maintain over the season,” he said. “It’s hard to say it where it ranks, because it’s the first round. If we were in the Western Conference final or something like that, I think it would be different case. At the same time, it was a huge win for our organization, so it was a big one for me.”

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Why Pekka Rinne is hockey’s most polarizing goalie