It's the best time of year!
Sitting around with some buddies in Finland on a summer afternoon in 2004, Pekka Rinne received an unexpected phone call. It occurred during a “mid-summer holiday” back home (as Rinne calls it), known to us in North America as the NHL Entry Draft. The call Rinne received was to notify him that he had just been drafted by the Nashville Predators.
“I got the call and I was extremely surprised,” Rinne said, “I was just like ‘Yeah, cool, Nashville! That’s awesome!’”
The steps that the eighth-round, 258th overall pick from 2004 has taken since then, to get to where he is today, have been extraordinary.
Although Rinne played only 14 games with Finland’s Karpat Oulu of the SM-Liiga in the year he was drafted (was Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom’s backup), Predators European scout Janne Kekalainen saw enough of the 6’5” netminder to point GM David Poile in the right direction in the drafting process. Poile took a flier on the big, lanky goaltender in eighth round that summer.
Rinne, now 28 years old, called his first rookie camp an “eye-opener”, but Preds goaltending coach Mitch Korn knew at that moment that the organization had found a diamond in the rough.
“We had all (four) goalies on the ice, counting him,” Korn recalled of the camp, “and I remember we all left the ice and (Head Coach Barry Trotz) was watching. I walked off the ice and Trotzy looked at me and I looked at him; and at the same moment, we both said ‘that is the one’, and it was Pekka.”
For goaltenders, defining moments in their careers usually come when they go from being a backup to a starter, or from good to great. But Korn feels Rinne’s ‘red-letter day’ up to this point is actually his NHL debut, a 5-3 win over Chicago on Dec. 15, 2005, at the age of 23.
“I remember he came across the net and he ended up on his backside. (Chicago) shot one and he caught it,” Korn said with a smile on his face. “That was kind of a red-letter day because at that moment, there were only three goalies in our history that had won games for us when he did that.”
Korn, one of the more well-known goaltending coaches in the NHL who has worked with Dominik Hasek in the past, is one of two coaches that Rinne attributes a lot of his success to. The other is his personal coach back home, Ari Hilli, whom Rinne still keeps in touch with on a weekly basis.
“They’ve helped me turn into the player I am today,” Rinne said. “Mitch and I have done a lot of work – we have a really good relationship. He’s had a big influence on me. I’ve also been working with (Hilli) for a really long time; he’s also had a big influence.”
The Kempele, Finland, native appeared in three NHL games in his first three years in North America (including the aforementioned debut), while spending most of his time in the AHL with Milwaukee.
In training camp back in 2007, Rinne had a shot to win the backup spot behind Chris Mason. Thanks to a great camp from fellow backup candidate Dan Ellis, Rinne was the victim of a hockey decision because waivers weren’t required for him to be sent down.
“I was just disappointed in myself,” the soft-spoken Rinne said of missing out on the backup job. “I felt I was working so hard for that spot and preparing myself. I didn’t have a good training camp. That took a while just to get mentally back into it.”
He was sent to Milwaukee for a third season; and despite admitting his disappointment, Admirals Head Coach Lane Lambert didn’t necessarily feel Rinne played with a chip on his shoulder in the 2007-08 season.
“There was certainly initial disappointment,” Lambert said, “but I think he only used that to fuel his progression in his development. At the end of the day, things happen for a reason, and maybe that was in the cards at that particular time. Spending more time here was that much better for him.”
Korn agreed: “The reason why he is where he is today, is because of the approach he took when that happened. He put his nose to the grindstone and made the very best of what may not have been a perfect situation for him.”
Rinne played in 65 games with the Admirals that season, compiling 35 wins and a 2.47 goals-against average. Not eye-popping numbers; but when 2008 rolled around, Rinne was more confident, experienced and mature as he took the backup job to Ellis, the newly-named starter.
“We had the luxury of depth,” Trotz said of Rinne’s prolonged stay in the AHL. “He had to stay (in the minors) and he had to play through it. What it has done is prepare him for a whole career and a consistent career, versus someone who may have short-term success and gets a little bit of entitlement.”
As the 2008-09 campaign wore on, Rinne started to steal starts from Ellis. By the end of the year, when the team was making a late charge for a playoff spot, Rinne was the go-to-guy in net. Following the All-Star break, he went 19-8-4 with a 2.41 GAA in 31 starts.
Rinne wasn’t able to carry over that success to his sophomore season, though. Prior to last year’s Olympic break, he posted a .902 save percentage and 2.80 GAA in 40 games while playing musical chairs in the crease with Ellis.
Has he ever.
Since the beginning of last March, Rinne has arguably been the best goalie in the league; in 78 starts, he has a 43-25-10 record and a staggering 2.09 GAA, with a .929 save percentage and 10 shutouts. If you take out the games that he missed with minor knee injuries earlier this year, Rinne has been a workhorse, starting 87.7 percent of the Predators’ games since that point – which has allowed him to take his game to another level.
“I didn’t play great at the beginning of last year,” Rinne said, “but it was kind of different when we were going back and forth with (Ellis). It’s a totally different confidence level when you know you’re going to be playing more.”
Nowadays you can find Rinne’s name in the Vezina Trophy (and even MVP) discussion, thanks to a 2.13 GAA and .929 save percentage, along with almost single-handedly keeping his team in the playoff race. Even though it’s unlikely that he wins the Hart Trophy – given to the player most valuable to his team – when you ask around the Predators locker room, there’s no doubt that he is the team’s MVP.
“I don’t really know how to describe it. He’s been a beast all year,” said Joel Ward of Rinne’s remarkable season. “There’s a lot of turning-point saves he makes, whether it’s a breakaway or a two-on-one, that are pivotal in a game.”
“He’s definitely the MVP,” J.P. Dumont said, “not only for our team, but for the league. He and (Anders Lindback) are the only reason why we’re here right now. Even in practice, he doesn’t want anyone to score on him. When he goes into a game, he brings that [mentality] with him.”
Both Ward and Dumont commented (with different view-points) that they expected Rinne to be this good, even before he was an established NHL goaltender.
“I played against him in the minors,” Ward said, “and we always knew when we played Milwaukee, Pekka was a tough guy to beat. I’m not really surprised.”
“You knew right away,” Dumont said. “To be a big-sized goalie with his work ethic and seeing the way he was moving and everything, you knew he was going to be a big deal.”
When you ask his peers what the secret to his success is, the vast majority mention his athleticism. Due to his 6’5” frame and Gumby-like flexibility, Rinne has wowed his teammates with countless acrobatic saves.
“He’s never out of a save,” Dumont said. “It’s really hard to play against a goalie like that, when you see an empty net and you think you have a full net to shoot at, all of a sudden you see a big glove or big pad come at you to make that big save. Peks definitely knows how to use his whole body.”
Rinne’s athleticism is one of the reasons why Lambert, though only his coach in Milwaukee for one season, isn’t surprised that he has evolved into an elite NHL goaltender.
“The quickness in his game was the probably the biggest thing, from a hockey standpoint, that stood out right away,” Lambert said. “There was certainly hope that he would develop into of the premier goalies in the league; based on what I saw in him, I thought he could be very close to that.”
With all of this being said, the one thing everyone goes back to when they talk of Rinne is the work ethic, character, commitment and demeanor he displays day in and day out.
“He loves being on the ice, he competes like a son-of-a-gun,” said Korn, who works with Rinne daily, “yet, it’s like an oxymoron. He’s so competitive and tense, but so laid back and comfortable. He’s able to be intense when he’s playing and not take it off the ice.”
Some people overuse the term ‘world-class goaltender’, but Nashville definitely has one in Rinne. Every year he has improved his game; so much so, that he is undoubtedly one of the top goalies in the entire NHL. “He’s the complete package,” Korn stressed.
When ‘Peks’ is back home in Finland this summer and spending time with friends, maybe they could be celebrating another surprise: A deep playoff run by the Rinne-led Predators.
Photos credit: Getty Images
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