There’s no doubt anymore: Pekka Rinne is in a 2nd half slump for the Predators.
In his last 20 games (dating back to January 1st), Rinne has a 10-8-2 record while stopping just .904 percent of all saves and allowing 2.8 goals per game. Those numbers show a significant drop from his numbers earlier this season, and they’re not even close to the numbers he put up last year when he won the Vezina Trophy.
He’s been uncomfortable in net for some time now and it’s starting to reflect in his recent numbers.
Of course, the big worry is whether Rinne’s current slump is just like any other slump, or if it’s a sign of something more ominous. Has he finally crossed the threshold of time? Is he finally too old to keep up with the game? Is he fighting an injury? Or is there something else going on?
These are all very important (and very unanswerable) questions. But the Predators have more immediate concerns: they will likely face either the St. Louis Blues or the Winnipeg Jets in the first round of the playoffs. If they want a chance to beat either of those teams in the first round, they will need much better goaltending.
And because it’s reasonable to worry that Rinne’s performance won’t magically change when the playoffs come around, this is where Juuse Saros comes in.
Compared to Rinne, Saros has been excellent. Before last night, since January 1st, Saros had gone 7-4-1 with a .933 save percentage and allowed only 2.1 goals per game. He earned some big wins over playoff bound teams in Washington, Vegas, and Dallas. He also played very well in two losses to Vegas and St. Louis, stopping a combined 87 shots in those two games.
That’s some All-Star caliber play from a backup goalie.
Then last night in San Jose, Saros stopped 24 of 26 shots to earn his 16th win of the year. It was arguably the team’s most impressive road win of the season and it came with Saros in net.
So, with the playoffs only 10 games away, should Juuse Saros be the starter in the playoffs over Pekka Rinne?
Saros is the better goalie right now, that’s undeniable. Unless Rinne makes a sharp turn these last few games, there’s no reason that Rinne should start Game 1 of the playoffs over Saros. If we were talking about any other player on the Predators, or any other team than the one in Nashville, this would be an easy decision.
But here’s why it won’t happen.
The team’s loyalty to Rinne is unmatched
The Predators are “ride or die” with Pekka Rinne as long as he’s in Nashville. At this point, I’m not sure there’s any level Rinne could reach that would lead to removing him from the starter’s crease in the playoffs.
This commitment to Rinne extends throughout every level of the Predators organization. David Poile, the rest of the front office, Peter Laviolette and the coaching staff, and the rest of the team. Across the board, this team has an unwavering loyalty to Rinne and his ability to carry the team.
They demonstrate this loyalty in their actions. Rinne has started every playoff game for the Predators since 2010, a streak that’s currently at 70 games. He’s also only been pulled early (not counting emptying the net for an extra attacker) from a playoff game eight times in that span.
They also demonstrate their loyalty with their words. Rinne is routinely labeled the team’s best player following most games, win or loss. And after losses, they are even more supportive of their goalie, regardless of his performance.
Go ahead and try to find one single post-game quote from any game where a member of the team criticized Rinne for his play. Good luck.
This is not an infallible perspective to have on an aging goalie, but it is one with some merit. Pekka Rinne is, after all, the best player in franchise history. He will finish his career in Nashville as the best goaltender they’ve ever had and he did so at a time when the team had the most success it ever had. He will also finish in the top 20 in career wins in the NHL.
Anyone could argue that the team has more faith and loyalty in Rinne than they should (I suppose that’s what I am doing with this article). But that won’t change the team’s commitment. When it comes to Rinne and the Predators, on-ice play and statistical analysis are only part of the equation. Mutual respect, professional admiration, and personal attachment are all important factors that affect game decisions.
Keep in mind that the coaching staff has already shown it’s not afraid to keep Rinne on a short leash. Laviolette pulled Rinne 10 minutes into Game 7 after giving up two soft goals to the Jets last year. They knew he didn’t have it that night and they knew a 2-0 deficit should have been enough to overcome. In the end, Rinne wasn’t the reason they lost that game, just the reason why it began so poorly.
Since the coaching staff has the short leash precedent in their pocket, perhaps it’s not the worst thing in the world to start Rinne in the playoffs. If he gives up another couple soft goals, Saros is ready to go.
Just don’t expect Saros to start the next game. That won’t happen with Rinne in town.
— Featured image via David Berding/USA TODAY Sports —