VOL. 41 | NO. 17 | Friday, April 28, 2017
The Old Man in the Crease
By John Glennon
With the final selection in the eighth round of the 2004 NHL Draft – after some 257 players had already been selected – the Nashville Predators took a chance on a lanky, young back-up goaltender from Finland.
In the years since, Pekka Rinne has established himself as the best goalie in Predators history and a well-respected cornerstone of the franchise. He’s set team records for victories, earned two All-Star game appearances and been nominated three times for the Vezina Trophy, given annually to the league’s best goalie.
But even as Rinne leads the Predators through the second round of the playoffs against the St. Louis Blues – following a tremendous first-round performance against Chicago – he finds himself fighting a familiar battle against time.
The 11-year veteran is now 34 years old, one of only five NHL goalies that age or older who played more than half their team’s games this season.
Rinne has two years remaining on his contract and put together one of his better regular seasons in 2016-17, so he’s not on the verge of retiring.
Still, he understands he has only so many seasons left, so Rinne sees every potential opportunity to win the Stanley Cup in a little bit different light than he did in earlier years.
“You do think about things like that because you never really know when it’s your last chance,” Rinne says.
“I think the older you get, the more you realize how hard it is to get to the playoffs and how fortunate we are that we have a team that we believe can go all the way.
“I think when you’re younger, you don’t always think about those things. You’re more worried about making a name for yourself and kind of expecting that it will happen every year.”
Rinne was hardly considered a hot prospect as a teenager in Finland, in part because he was the back-up to another future NHL goalie – Nicklas Backstrom – and in part because he was still adjusting to the growth spurt that elevated him to a 6-foot-5 youngster.
But Predators scouts were impressed by his athleticism and his frame, figuring he was worth selecting in the eighth of nine rounds in 2004.
Rinne flashed potential in his first NHL game way back in 2006, stopping 38 shots in a victory over Chicago. By the 2008-09 season, he’d seized the Nashville starter’s position and has held it ever since.
Predators goalie Juuse Saros, left, is congratulated by teammate Pekka Rinne after a win against Boston. Both are from Finland, and Rinne has taken an active role in grooming Saros as his possible successor. They are roommates off the ice, with Rinne playing the role of chef. -- Ap Photo/Mark Zaleski
It was Rinne who first guided the Preds into the second round of the playoffs in 2012, Rinne who recovered from a pair of hip surgeries to earn eight votes as the NHL’s most valuable player following the 2014-15 season.
“He’s such a big part of our team. He’s really been our MVP since I’ve been here,” says defenseman Ryan Ellis, in his seventh year with the Predators. “We’ve always kind of gone as Peks has gone.
“You look at him and at everything he gives to this team. His on-ice play and practice really brings our energy level up. Seeing him do it makes you want to do better.”
As impressive as Rinne has been on the ice over the years, he’s earned just as much praise for his character.
One example occurred early this season when Predators goalie prospect Juuse Saros was promoted from the minor leagues to serve as Rinne’s back-up.
The talented 21-year-old will likely succeed Rinne at some point, so Rinne could easily have given the youngster the cold shoulder, seeing him as a threat to his starting role.
Instead, Rinne took Saros – who didn’t yet have permanent housing – in as a roommate, cooking dinner for the two on numerous occasions. Rinne’s specialties are lamb chops – served with a side of couscous (and plenty of spices) – and Thai food, featuring beef tenderloin, a red curry sauce and rice.
“That’s one of Juuse’s favorites,” Rinne says.
Adds Saros: “Pretty much anything he does is good. He has a lot of skills in the kitchen. I think he should write a cooking book.”
In the days leading up to the underdog Predators’ first-round playoff series against top-seeded Chicago this year, Rinne sounded like a man who was ready for change.
He said it was time for the Preds, who’d lost to the Blackhawks in two previous playoff appearances, to step up and knock off the Central Division bully.
“A lot of times, I think players don’t want to acknowledge what the problem is – or what the pothole is,” says Ray Ferraro, former NHL player, now a broadcast analyst for Canadian-based TSN.
Mattias Ekholm embraces Pekka Rinne after a 4-1 series-clinching win against the Chicago Blackhawks in Game Four of the opening round of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Bridgestone Arena. -- John Russell/Nashville Predators
“But Rinne was like, ‘Look, we’ve got to get past these guys.’ I thought that was really important for (the Predators’) psyche. They all knew it – he just went out and said it.”
Rinne then went out and recorded the best playoff series of his career, shutting out the Blackhawks in the first two games and stopping 123-of-126 shots in Nashville’s four-game sweep.
Those numbers were an extension of Rinne’s play down the stretch during the regular season when he surrendered just 17 goals in his last 15 games overall heading into the St. Louis series.
Game One in that series saw Rinne give up three goals in a 4-3 win. Game Two is Friday night in St. Louis.
“I think as you get older, the regular season is pretty grueling and long,” Rinne points out. “But then it’s a funny feeling when you get to the playoffs – you just kind of feel energized. It’s a totally different atmosphere, and you feel dialed in and focused.”
The longest-tenured member of the Predators, Rinne now sets his sights on steering Nashville into the third round of the playoffs and beyond, something neither he nor the team has ever accomplished.
How many more years will Rinne get such opportunities?
No one can say for sure, but it’s worth noting that Rinne is the second-oldest starting goalie in this year’s playoffs. The New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist, who turned 35 on March 2, is the oldest and having a great playoff run, as well.
“I think, probably, that as the years go by, (playoff success) becomes even more important to you,” Rinne explains.
“You know there’s no guarantee that you’re going to be back, so you have to make the most of every chance.”
Reach John Glennon at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.