It's the best time of year!
In the last three years, the Predators have started the regular season with a stable goaltending situation – or at least you would have thought. From Chris Mason to Dan Ellis to Pekka Rinne, the starter in October has lost the job at some point during the year ever since Tomas Vokoun was dealt.
Entering the 2010/11 campaign, the situation is different. There isn’t that controversy we saw last year of whether Rinne or Ellis is the number one. We know who the starter is. We’ve known ever since last winter’s Olympic break.
The battle for the backup spot, though, has taken Nashville’s training camp by storm.
Four netminders – Mark Dekanich (pictured), Anders Lindback, Chet Pickard, and Jeremy Smith – are in a race to win the position to backup Rinne, who has established himself as the clear-cut number one.
None of the four vying for the backup spot have played a single minute in the NHL. Dekanich and Pickard played with Milwaukee of the AHL last season, while Smith was in Cincinnati (Nashville’s ECHL affiliate). Lindback has played the last two years in the Swedish Elite League, a league that many think is better competition than the AHL.
Going into camp, according to position coach Mitch Korn, Dekanich has a ‘leg up’ to win the backup job. In the last two years in Milwaukee, the 24-year-old Colgate product has racked up 42 wins and five shutouts. He would be considered the ‘elder statesman’ of the competition.
“They always preach here that the road to Nashville is through Milwaukee,” Dekanich stated. “Just being able to get that experience and learn the pro game in the minors I think is a big plus when it comes to pro lifestyle and playing in the NHL.”
Dekanich’s backup last season, Pickard, struggled in his first season as a pro. Pickard, who was a first-round pick in 2008, admitted that there was an adjustment period in the AHL.
“Every day I learned something new. Obviously the biggest thing was just the quickness, and I knew that going into the season… how quick the transition was going to be, how quick the players were, etc. But I didn’t really realize it until I started playing and my first few games were not good.”
Pickard posted a 2.85 goals against average and .892 save percentage with the Admirals in 2009/10.
Lindback was a seventh-round draft choice of Nashville’s back in 2008. The towering Swede has backstopped Timra and Brynas of the Swedish Elite League, respectively, the last two years.
The 6’6” 22-year-old goalie has shown flashes of brilliance thus far in camp, and is considered one of the favorites to take the backup position as he’s played professionally the last handful of seasons.
While Pickard has a very high ceiling, the organization is unlikely to throw him into an NHL game without more seasoning in the minors (unless he shines in the pre-season). The same goes for Smith, who has played all but five minutes above the ECHL.
As all four jockey for the backup spot, Rinne finally has a comfort level he has yet to experience here in the NHL. Rinne signed a two-year extension last February, and his game took off when the team returned from the Olympic break. He went 12-4-1 with 1.96 GAA in March and April, leading the Preds to their sixth playoff appearance in the last seven seasons.
In 2007/08, Chris Mason took over for the departed Tomas Vokoun. Everyone felt pretty good about Mason being the starter, but he played poorly out of the gates with a 2-7 mark and 3.89 GAA in October. He eventually surrendered to then-newcomer and unknown Dan Ellis.
The following season (after Mason was dealt), Ellis and Rinne were one-two to start, but Ellis couldn’t hang on. By the All-Star break, Rinne was starting to see more time in the crease as the starter. Then last year the two split time all season until Rinne separated himself from Ellis after the Olympics.
The Predators hope history doesn’t repeat itself where Rinne would play out of the starter’s spot.
After three days of camp, the race has intensified. Scrimmages have taken place, and three pre-season games are slated for later in the week. Those games are where the prospective backups will separate themselves.
“It’s early yet. We’ll let a lot of the exhibition season play out before we make any last decisions on it,” Coach Barry Trotz said.
By sheer experience, Dekanich and Lindback are considered to have an advantage going into game play.
“I think they’re a little bit older, little bit more experienced; it shows,” Trotz mentioned. “Their game has a little more calmness to it, where the young guys (Pickard and Smith) still have that quickness. They just need the game to slow down a little bit, and they’re not there yet.”
If none of the four goalies seem ready or emerge as solid enough backups, the team will likely go out in the free agent pool or waiver wire to find a suitable replacement.
General manager David Poile also chimed in on the situation. “I don’t like to make decisions just on one or two days or scrimmages. I’ll probably feel way more comfortable in a couple weeks when they’ve played in games, and look at the total body of work.”
Simply put, one of the main focuses of Predators camp in the next couple weeks will be the goaltending duel.
When I asked Dekanich what his main goal is here in training camp, he basically spoke for all four of the candidates.
“Just trying to stop the puck! Doing anything I can to stop it and hopefully can control all my rebounds at the same time.”
Photo credit: Getty Images
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