Yes, he just won the Vezina trophy for the goaltender judged to be the best at his position, but the Predators organisation and their fans will have some tough decisions to face soon, regarding their netminding.
Pekka Rinne isn’t getting any younger, and the end of his 7 year, $7 million AAV contract is looming. At 35, he doesn’t have all that long left, as much as it seems like the team, and fans, want him around forever.
His Vezina win is marred slightly by his streaky playoff performance, and the team’s subsequent disappointing second round exit. When he stunk, he stunk bad, and his teammates weren’t poor enough in front of him to alleviate the blame.
Rinne’s backup, and presumably who the Preds have in mind to tend goal after Rinne takes a step back, is Juuse Saros, who is 23 years old. At the time of writing, the team has offered him his qualifying offer as an RFA.
Being thrown from starting less than 30 games and into a starting role is probably not the best way to ease in the future of your franchise’s goaltending. However, having him split more starts with Rinne while having the Vezina winner on hand to take the reigns should anything unfortunate happen, seems like a better plan.
Rinne has even stated that he’ll be willing to take a step back once Saros is ready. Don’t get me wrong, Saros shouldn’t be starting 60, but giving him more games, and maybe even some starts when the Predators undoubtedly make the playoffs, will be good at building his confidence and seeing if he can handle a bigger workload.
Worst case scenario, Rinne is better rested down the stretch. Playing almost at the 60 game mark won’t be sustainable as the prime of his career gets further and further behind him.
Now for the boring part: the numbers.
Mopping up Rinne’s messes in the playoffs, Saros had a .952 save percentage, includimng letting in two goals in the final game against the Jets in game 7, a game that had been lost in the first ten minutes. Saros played 98 minutes total, and there were four games where he stepped up in relief of Rinne, one against Colorado, three against Winnipeg. Saros saw no playoff starts, even after some of Rinne’s more abysmal performances. Though, Rinne made the case to start game 7 with his shutout in game 6.
Rinne himself had a .904 save percentage, and while he started every game, it still isn’t the calibre you would expect. By the end of the Preds’ playoff run, you could flip a coin as to whether you’d get Vezina winner calibre Rinne, or the Rinne that got chased in the first fifteen minutes of a game seven.
So here’s why I argue his role should be lessened this coming season. Simply put, Rinne isn’t going to be around forever, and unless he’s willing to take a paycut, chances are he it will be difficult to get him back with Nashville after the 18-19 season.
The year Rinne’s deal expires, Nashville will also have Fiala, Sissons and Weber to hand out contracts to, with Josi’s up the year after. Depending on how much the salary cap will rise, and how much their current RFA’s make this year (Saros, Salomaki and Hartman), the Preds are tentatively okay for now.
Remaining competitive in the Atlantic, where they’ll have to beat the Winnipeg Jets (and their Vezina candidate goaltender) to make it past the second round could see the Predators adding big, expensive pieces in the future. Do they have the space to give Rinne the deal he’ll ask for as he pushes 40?
We might see a flash of the Preds intentions based on the money Saros gets. I don’t expect the team to be particularly active during the rest of free agency, but with an estimated $11 million in cap space, they could make a few short term moves, or cheap contracts with more term. Ellis’ next contract is going to be some serious money, avoiding a painful cap crunch would be the preferable option.
My reasoning is less ‘Pekka deserves less starts’ and more ‘it’s time to train his replacement’.
Feature image credit: OnTheForecheck