Saturday, March 26, 2016

Slump? Pekka Rinne is a world class goaltender

By Larry Wigge

What's wrong with Pekka Rinne?

The answer is nothing ... nothing at all.

Never has there been a career that has been filled with obstacles such as being picked the eighth round, 258th pick, in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.

Nashville's top European scout, Janne Kekalainen, during the 2003-04, had requested that then-assistant GM Ray Shero, now the New Jersey Devils boss. The only problem was that Rinne was the backup for Niklas Backstrom. So ... he didn't play often.

In fact ...

"I saw his team play twice, but Niklas Backstrom played both games," Shero said. "I don't even remember if I filed a report on how he stopped the puck in the pre-game warmups."

"The way I remember it, Ray was our backup plan," said Nashville GM David Poile said with a straight face. "I remember Janne Kekalainen told us he was a late-bloomer with great size.

"We were looking for goaltending depth at the time and Janne identified him as a guy we would want to look at in the draft ... and he's turned out to be a great development story."

Two things Shero remembers from that trip to Finland.

First, it was cold. Second, it was really cold. So cold, in fact, that Shero had to buy a hat when he got there.

He watched Rinne in the warmups.

"I don't remember if he saved 10 or let in 10 in warmup, just that he was huge," Shero said. "I told Janne it was his call."

At the draft, the Predators selected the 6-5, 204-pound Rinne.

"Everybody has highs and lows through the course of a season," explained coach Peter Laviolette. "I think Rinne's been working hard. He's a world-class goalie."

Niklas Backstrom, who for years was with the Minnesota Wild and now is in Calgary, said, "When you think you have him beat ... you probably don't."

Think of this rather uncomplicated way of saying Rinne is just that good.

"He's got a great glove. I tried him there a couple of times. Then I thought I could beat him low with a couple of quick shots at his feet," Blues center David Backes said playing against him divisionally. "He's definitely not just a big guy taking up space in front of the net. He's very quick at the bottom and top part of the net."

So there.

For the season, Rinne has played in 60 games, with a 31-19-10 record, with four shutouts and a 2.41 goals-against average and .910 save percentage following a 2-1 shootout victory over Vancouver March 24.

Since February 15, he has posted an 11-1 (losing two shootout game) record, a 1.78 goals against average and one shutout in 14 starts. That includes 10 times out of 14 games in which he allowed two or fewer goals.

"(Backstrom) was pretty decent," Rinne said with a pause and a wry smile. "No, he was so good. Even though I didn't play, that helped me so much. Not only that we won two championships (in 2004 and 2005), but I got to see him play, practice every day. We had a really good goalie coach in Ari Hilli who I still talk with pretty regularly. That was a key thing for me. I had a lot of time to work and watch Nik play.

"Obviously there were times that I wanted to play and I thought that I could play, but after that second year, I had a chance to come over and I'm still on the same trip."

Rinne has gone on to win 30 games, including this season. He has twice won 40 -- with a high of 43 in 2011-12.

This is pretty heady stuff for Pekka Rinne, the son of Jukka (a construction supervisor) and Helena (who works in the production of cellphone parts) when a young Pekka put on his cousin Jari's old goaltending pads when he was just seven and thought he had grown out of a job went he had a four-inch growth spurt with he was 16-17.

There's more obstacles other than a growth spurt.

"I have had a good background," Rinne said. "I've always had good instincts. Played the angles well. We always had a good goaltending coach, he stressed whenever possible to rely on my glove.

"Always use my glove."

He is one of the best goaltenders in the world if not the best, said former goaltending coach Mitch Korn. "And yet he's a better person," he said. "And with that comes great karma and great respect."

Korn picked out Rinne at a tryout camp. He was up against more heralded goaltenders like first-round pick Brian Finley and Mirolslav Hanujak (203 overall in the 2003 draft) and Kyle Moir (139th in 2004).

"Nine years ago, Barry Trotz and I had just finished working out Pekka and three other draft choices -- all picked ahead of him," said Korn. "I walked off the ice and said to Barry, 'I want That One.' "

He was pointing at Rinne.

"He wants the puck so bad, that one of the big things he had to learn was patience," said Korn. "He was such a great athlete. Waiting for the puck, knowing that he has so much more time. Too busy when he came over here from Finland.

"He got a good start in North American hockey at Milwauke (American Hockey League). He was never rushed."

Patience. That could be the bottom line to Pekka's story.

"It's one of those things where you try to just trust the work you're doing and try to focus on things you can control," Rinne said of his early season struggles. "It's been frustrating. I can't lie. But I obviously expect a lot from myself and it is tough when you feel like there's room for you to improve and play better and help your team.

"It's been at times pretty frustrating, but the best part is that there's plenty of games ahead of us."

This time, with coach Barry Trotz and Korn in Washington, Rinne decided to trust his new goaltending coach, Ben Vanderklok.

"He's been very helpful," Rinne said. "He sees the game the same way as Mitch does, if you will, and really has followed Mitch’s footsteps in that sense. That’s a really great thing for myself. I haven’t had to change anything. We have just been trying to evolve and improve where I left off with Mitch."

Said Pekka Rinne, "When that fire is gone, I think it's pretty dangerous and it's time to do something else. But I'm not worried about that. I always set my goals extremely high and always expect myself to be at the top of my game. There's no excuses, never."

Remember that: He sets his goals high.

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