“Pekka Rinne, how do you spell it?”
Barry Trotz pauses, waiting to deliver the punchline: “I spell it M-V-P!”
“’Cause he is. He’s our MVP.”
And not only the most valuable player of the Nashville Predators, the team’s long-time coach adds, but MVP of the entire league, a goaltender worthy of the Hart Memorial Trophy when this 2011-12 season is finished.
A good case can be made for this argument. The Predators, decidedly young, with no superstar in the lineup – some would say with no true NHL calibre first line – are tied with the St. Louis Blues for the third best record in the tough Western Conference. In 54 games heading into Thursday night’s match with the Ottawa Senators, the Predators had 69 points, 65 of them thanks to Rinne’s 30-11-5 record and his sparkling .925 save percentage.
“We wouldn’t be in the position we are right now if it wasn’t for Pekka,” Trotz says.
“He is hands down the best goalie I have ever played with or against,” says 21-year-old defenceman Ryan Ellis. “We even celebrate when we score on him in practice.”
Rinne is one of hockey’s most amusing and inspirational stories. He played goal because his older cousin wanted to practise his shot in road hockey. He starred in pesapallo, a Finnish game that is a cross between baseball and rounders, and he credits it with shaping his remarkable eye-hand co-ordination. He was good enough to make the local elite hockey team, Karpat, but not good enough to displace the No. 1 goaltender, Niklas Backstrom, now in the NHL with the Minnesota Wild.
Nashville’s European scout, Janne Kekalainen, thought the Predators should have a good look at this gangling – 6 foot 5 – goaltender backing Backstrom, so then assistant general manager Ray Shero, now GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins, flew over to see for himself.
“Ray only came for one game,” Rinne says. “They told me I would be playing, but then I wasn’t. So he only pretty much saw me in warm-up. It’s a good story. I was fortunate.”
The Predators obviously only took a flier on him. They waited until the eighth round, their 10th pick of the day, and took him as the 258th player chosen that day. Players taken that deep in the draft rarely make it, and rarely star.
It took time in the minors, where Rinne filled out and would likely be talked about as the biggest goaltender in the NHL if he weren’t already the smallest goaltender on the Predators; little-used backup Anders Lindback is 6 foot 6, 203 pounds.
Rinne is too young to remember when goalies were the little kid who couldn’t skate. But he does recognize that today’s monster goaltenders are different than anything that has gone before.
“It’s a big advantage,” he says, “just covering more. It gives you more reach. Being a smaller guy, you have to be a better skater and faster. You have to read the game really well, when to go down and when to stay up.
“For a bigger guy, the game is so fast, you still have to know when to use your size and when to use your reactions.”
Rinne, obviously, has both assets and puts them to excellent use. He won 11 consecutive games in January through the first week of this month. His 24 shutouts are the most of any NHL goaltender over the past four seasons. He is the best goalie when it comes to the goaltender nightmare known as the shootout, having stopped 95 of the 122 game-ending “breakaways” he has faced. They still talk about “The Save” he made in overtime against the Vancouver Canucks, when he came out of nowhere, leaping across his own crease like a pesapallo shortstop (if they have them) to steal a sure goal from Kevin Bieksa.
No wonder that back on Nov. 3, his birthday, the Predators signed him to the largest contract in the franchise’s history: $49-million (U.S.) over seven years. That night he shut out the Phoenix Coyotes 3-0.
It is because of play like this that Trotz, who always used to talk about how his team had to work hard and play smart just to be competitive, now has a bit of a new tune to him.
“We’re past the stage of just wanting to be competitive,” he says.
“We want the Cup.”