Pekka Rinne was drafted by the Nashville Predators in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft at 258th overall. He has since become the franchise leader in wins, shutouts, has been an All-Star four times, Vezina finalist three times and Vezina winner once in 2018. That is incredible value for a player who had 257 players selected ahead of him. He’s been a fan favourite and his 365 Pediatric Cancer Fund does wonders for the community — by all accounts he is one of the most beloved Predators of all time.
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Being a fan favourite doesn’t win you games, though, and father time is undefeated. Rinne will turn 38 in November and with 24-year-old Juuse Saros accumulating over 100 games in his shadow over the years, it is likely time for a changing of the guard. Which begs the question, what’s next for Finland’s all-time leader in NHL wins?
Despite being drafted in 2004, Rinne didn’t see the crease in Nashville until 2008-09 where he was thrown immediately into the fire, starting 49 games and winning 29 of them. He also accumulated seven shutouts. Nine wins in 12 games, a .944 save percentage (SV%) and a 1.72 goals against average (GAA) in the month of February won him the Rookie of the Month and the starting job for the next decade plus.
Over the next decade he was a 40-win goalie three times and a 30-win goalie five times. In 646 career starts, he posted a goals against average higher than 2.50 only three times: 2009-10 (2.53), 2013-14 (2.77) and this past season where his goals against average was 3.17. He has two seasons in the top 50 goals above replacement since 2008 among goalies. In 2018 when he recorded his 300th win, he trailed only Martin Brodeur and Marc-Andre Fleury in regards to win percentage (54.34%) among goalies to win 300 games.
As great as his career has been, this past season Saros finally broke into 1A status and set his sights on starter status. Rinne began the season as the starter and did take the majority of the workload (he had one more start with 36 to Saros’ 35). Saros eventually stole the job with some incredible play this season that really forced head coach Peter Laviolette’s hand.
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He finished the season with a record of 17-12-4, giving up only five goals in his last four games that included back-to-back shutouts. Saros is 24 years old — 13 years younger than Rinne — and he already has 104 NHL starts under his belt. When you consider his feet more than wet with triple-digit starts and a terrific end to the season, all roads lead to the beginning of the Saros era in Nashville.
So, does Rinne finish his career as a Predator? The answer isn’t so simple. Other questions need to be answered first: Does he want to win a Cup as a starter? Does he want to be a backup? Is he seeking another contract when his is up at the end of 2020-21? Will there be someone willing to give him an offer as a starter? Will that team be in a better position to win a Stanley Cup than Nashville?
A lot of these answers ultimately lie with Rinne and what he will want to do. What we do know is that Saros will be taking the lead during the final season of Rinne’s contract, but Rinne will be in a fringe starter role should anything go wrong. As for what he will do when his contract is up? Perhaps we should look to the future decisions of another handsome legend who has seen his crease open up for younger, more promising goaltenders.
The Lundqvist Route
Henrik Lundqvist was one of the most dominant and steady hands an NHL crease has seen over the past decade and a half. Exactly like Rinne, the crease he has tended for so long has gone the way of youth. They both have a say in their future holding no-movement clauses (or a 10-team no-trade list in Rinne’s case), but there is a major difference between the two cases. Lundqvist to be faced with the looming decision before Rinne, as Lundqvist has two goalies viewed to be ahead of him on the depth chart.
It’s uncommon for an NHL team to carry three goaltenders during the season and even more uncommon for future Hall of Famers to agree to be third stringers. New York Rangers president John Davidson had a “conversation with Lundqvist” following their qualifying-round exit and the speculation is that he has been informed the club will only carry two goalies next year — he may not be one of them.
With a full no-movement clause, the ball is in King Henrik’s court and what he chooses to do will likely pave the way for Rinne. His decision will highlight both the value of a veteran goaltender on the trade market and the potential result of leaving a franchise that saw the inception and facilitation of a Hall of Fame career. A saying that aging athletes are often faced with is “what have you done for me lately,” but with two trips to the Stanley Cup Final between them and no ring to show for it, Lundqvist and Rinne may be asking the same thing of the only franchises they have ever known.