The fact the Nashville Predators lost Game 7 of the Central Division final at home Thursday night was forgivable enough. Yes, this team won the Presidents’ Trophy with a franchise-record 117 points, and the mission was Stanley Cup or bust after a Game 6 loss in the 2017 final. But, hey, the Predators ran into the Jets, the team that finished with three fewer points in the regular season. The series was a coin flip from the puck drop of Game 1, and no team won consecutive games. So, in theory, there was no shame in losing a seven-game war to an equally fantastic club.
But how Nashville lost the game was the problem. This wasn’t a 2-1 heartbreaker in overtime. Pekka Rinne, who in June should win his first Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender, wound up pulled by coach Peter Laviolette after 10 minutes and 31 seconds, during which Rinne allowed two odd, bad-angle goals while seemingly tight against his post. The second goal from Paul Stastny turned out to be the winner, meaning Game 7 was decided in those first 10 and a half minutes.
The Predators lost this series for more than one reason. Mark Scheifele’s brilliant effort for Winnipeg, in which he scored seven road goals at Bridgestone Arena, showed the value of a dominant No. 1 center and highlighted that Nashville, while extremely deep down the middle, doesn’t have the true star option. At the same time, no player warranted more blame for the loss than Rinne, who was pulled three times in the series. The Predators and GM David Poile now find themselves in an extremely awkward position entering a crucial off-season.
Rinne is the best goaltender in Predators history and ranks as one of the franchise’s two greatest contributors ever alongside Shea Weber. While many advanced statistics over the years have exposed Rinne as overrated despite his flashy, impressive athleticism and size, Rinne was genuinely good this season even when you looked under the hood. He’ll deserve his Vezina. Yet he’s let the team down when it desperately needed him. Even with Rinne getting the hook three times, Nashville was a game away from the Western Conference final. Even when he dropped some stink bombs on the road in the Stanley Cup final last year, the Preds got two wins away from a championship. If Rinne was 10 percent better, we could be looking at consecutive Nashville Cups, so it’s not a stretch to say his meltdown games have cost his team a lot. Rinne turns 36 in November and enters the final season of his contract at a $7-million cap hit.
Meanwhile, rookie Juuse Saros, 23, has emerged as one of the best backup goaltenders in the game. He couldn’t be more physically different from Rinne – Saros is generously listed as 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, whereas Rinne is 6-foot-5 and 217 pounds – but Saros gets results anyway with his quickness and timing. He posted a .925 save percentage in 26 games this season and a .952 SP in 114 minutes spread across four relief appearances in the 2018 playoffs. Saros is also an RFA this summer. He’s clearly the successor to Rinne. It stands to reason Rinne, second only to Henrik Lundqvist in starts over the past 10 seasons, could use a bit more rest, so it might make sense for Nashville to, say, give Saros 30 starts next season and hold Rinne in the low 50s in hopes of keeping him fresh for the post-season.
But is that automatically the right option for the Predators? Some might say Saros deserves to start, but money talks, so if Rinne remains on the team next year, he can’t back up Saros, because Rinne is a $7-million goalie. But what if Rinne…isn’t on the team next year?
David Poile is arguably the NHL’s most aggressive GM. He’s traded first-round picks in wild deadline swaps. He’s dealt away young phenom D-man Seth Jones and captain Weber. Poile quickly recognizes team needs and does whatever is necessary to address them. It’s clear Nashville didn’t quite have what it takes to go all the way in 2017-18. It could use that elusive No. 1 center and some depth upgrades on defense to better support the big four of Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm. Financially, however, the Preds don’t have room to do much. They’ve committed $67.53 million in cap space for next year, with RFAs Saros and Ryan Hartman needing new deals. With the cap expected to rise from $75 million to upwards of $80 million, Nashville shouldn’t be jammed up against it but also won’t be swimming in cash…
…unless, perhaps, $7 million disappears from the ledger. Even after collapsing in the post-season, Rinne still carries tremendous value. He’s going to be ‘Vezina Trophy Winner Pekka Rinne’ in a matter of weeks. Plenty of teams would consider him a gargantuan upgrade. Imagine what he’d do for the Philadelphia Flyers, for example. Trading him might feel like a dagger in the franchise’s heart but, remember, Poile traded Shea Weber just two years ago. There’s precedent for cowboy moves in Nashville’s front office. A Rinne trade could clear enough cap space for Nashville to become a real player for some of the top forwards in free agency – even John Tavares. Or, depending on where Rinne goes, he could return a cheaper but still-impactful forward in the deal. That might be the more realistic route considering Ellis, a priority piece of the team, is a UFA next summer and could triple his current cap hit of $2.5 million.
The idea of a Rinne trade might feel knee-jerky and even a bit sacrilegious considering he’s a franchise institution and one of the game’s best, most likable ambassadors. But the Predators know they’re in a key Cup-contention window and in need of a couple tweaks. Better clutch goaltending and another elite forward would propel Nashville to the top of the pack next season, and a Rinne trade could help accomplish both. Don’t be so quick to bet against it. No one takes risks like Poile does.