Just under five minutes into Thursday night’s Nashville-Winnipeg contest, it seemed like it would be another one of those games for Predators goalie Pekka Rinne. You could hardly blame him for the goal against – a breakaway at the hands of Nikolaj Ehlers – but he hasn’t exactly made those saves lately either. Fortunately for Nashville, he was spotless after that, stopping 26 of 27 shots faced in the win. It’s a game the Predators will need to see more of from Rinne if they want to get back into the playoff race. The team currently sits one point out of a playoff spot, despite being the second best possession team in the league and the best by expected goals (which accounts for the quality of those chances). While there’s been some scoring troubles, most of the blame for the team’s struggles can be placed squarely on Rinne's shoulders.
Over the last 10 games, Rinne has posted a .900 save percentage or higher just twice, going 3-6-1 in the process. In fact, he’s gone below .900 in 19 of his 39 starts this season. When your goalie is laying eggs every other game, it’s hard for any team to win. The Predators have gone 4-12-3 in those games. Rinne currently sports a .903 SP this season – the league’s average is .917 – just underneath Michael Hutchinson and Cam Ward and ahead of Jonathan Bernier and Mike Smith. That’s not the company Rinne usually keeps. Over the previous five seasons (not including this one), Rinne is at .921, tied with two likely Vezina candidates this season: Roberto Luongo and Braden Holtby. And that’s what most fans have come to expect from Rinne. So Rinne is an elite goalie and this is just a blip, right? Not exactly. Rinne obviously isn’t this bad, not even close, but he’s hardly the elite goalie everyone believes him to be, especially at 33. The fact of the matter is that Rinne has benefitted a lot from the defense in front of him. Just think of all the guys that have played defense for Nashville over the years and you’ll get the picture. Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm are probably the league’s best top-4 right now, not to mention they’ve lost Ryan Suter, Seth Jones, Cody Franson, Dan Hamhuis, Michael Del Zotto and Kevin Klein over the last few seasons. Those guys and the system Nashville plays has propped up Rinne to the point where his reputation has oversold his ability. Rinne generally posts elite numbers, sure, but it’s mostly a product of the system in front of him. Up until the last couple years, save percentage was pretty much all we had to measure a goalie’s worth, hence the massive amount of respect Rinne garnered. But there’s been some recent gains in goalie stats that give context to the saves goalies make, mainly where the shots come from. There’s more to shot quality than location alone, but it’s still a big step forward for goalie analysis. War-On-Ice separates the defensive-zone into three sections based on the probability of a shot going in. Knowing the chance of scoring from each zone means it’s possible to create a rough expected save percentage based on the distribution of shots faced from each zone. (It’s also important here to separate special teams from 5-on-5 play as a lot of the randomness in goalie results is fuelled by what happens when a team is shorthanded). In Nashville’s case, they’ve been one of the league’s best teams this season in keeping shots to the outside. Not only that, but they suppress shots better than almost every team in the league.
Among the top 30 goalies in shots faced, only Jonathan Bernier has seen easier shots this season (go figure) while Cam Ward is the only goalie to see fewer per minute. Arguably no starting goalie has had an easier workload than Rinne this season, which probably makes Rinne’s effort even more frustrating for Preds fans. The easier workload has actually been a consistent trend over most of Rinne’s career and it’s probably the driving force behind his bloated rep. Here’s what Rinne’s last five seasons look like in rolling 10 game increments, along with what an average goalie would do under similar circumstances.
At 5-on-5, the average save percentage for the past four seasons has hovered around .922 and .923 while this season it’s jumped all the way up to roughly .927. By raw output, Rinne looks very good every year, except for a horrific 2013-14 campaign and this season. But take into account what’s expected of him and he starts looking much more average. Over the past five seasons, Rinne has a .926 SP at 5-on-5, but based on the distribution of shots faced an average goalie likely would’ve posted a .929. To be fair to Rinne, that injury-riddled 2013-14 season looks more like an outlier than anything resembling his true ability. If you exclude it, his save percentage jumps up to .929; exactly the same as expected. Not elite. Just average. And there’s nothing wrong with being an average goalie, but that’s not what Rinne’s been this season. He’s been one of the league’s worst. The Predators have done their part so far by controlling play better than almost every team. In doing so, Nashville is giving themselves a good chance to win every night. Rinne hasn’t. History tells us he’ll bounce back, because he’s simply not this bad. But those expecting him to find his former Vezina form will likely be disappointed; he’s not that good, either.
All data via war-on-ice.com.