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Late-bloomer Rinne paying dividends for Preds

Thursday, 09.29.2011 / 3:00 AM / NHL.com's 30 in 15

By Corey Masisak - NHL.com Staff Writer

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Late-bloomer Rinne paying dividends for Preds
Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne's path to a Vezina nomination involved three draft-eligible years in which all 30 NHL teams overlooked him and time spent in Finland as Niklas Backstrom's backup.

From the time Pekka Rinne first was eligible to be drafted, the 30 NHL teams made 1,129 selections before his named was called.

Rinne is one of the League's ultimate "late-bloomers," but the Nashville Predators have reaped the benefits from taking a flier on the lanky goaltender in the eighth round of the 2004 Entry Draft. He has become one of the world's top goaltenders, and one of the biggest reasons the Predators are a contender in the Western Conference.

"I think it (playing in the NHL) was always my distant dream, but obviously it took a while to really get serious and consider that could someday happen," Rinne told NHL.com. "Back then I realistically didn't think about it too much that someday I'll play in the NHL. My main thing was to make the men's team through the juniors in Karpat Oulu. I just wanted to make the No. 1 team and maybe someday play professionally."

Part of the reason Rinne remained undrafted after the summers of 2001, 2002 and 2003 passed was the lack of opportunities for him to play at the top level in Finland. He joined Karpat from a much smaller team when he was 16 years old.

In the years before those drafts, Rinne spent the majority of his time with Karpat's junior team. While he compiled impressive numbers, including a 2.12 goals-against average in 2001-02 and a 1.95 GAA the next season, it didn't register with NHL scouts.

Pekka Rinne
Goalie - NSH
RECORD: 33-22-9
GAA: 2.12 | SVP: 0.930
He played only one game for Karpat's senior team in that span and allowed seven goals. Rinne's path was blocked by another promising goaltender, Niklas Backstrom, who joined Karpat in 2002-03 as a 24-year-old and instantly became one of the top goalies in the league.

Rinne made 14 appearances as Backstrom's backup in 2003-04 and that was enough for the Predators to take a chance on a skinny 21-year-old, who stood 6-foot-5 but had work to do.

"(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."

After being drafted, Rinne spent another season backing up Backstrom before the Predators signed him and sent him to their American Hockey League affiliate in Milwaukee. Slated to compete for playing time with Brian Finley, a 1999 first-round pick, Rinne grabbed control of the job and his path to NHL stardom accelerated.

He played in 51 AHL games during the regular season and helped the Admirals to the Calder Cup Final. Rinne missed a big chunk of the next season with an injury, but he played in 65 games for Milwaukee in 2007-08 and proved he was ready for a chance in the big leagues.

"I remember signing that contract and didn't really know what to expect," Rinne said. "I knew that I signed a contract with an NHL team in Nashville, but I'm going to play somewhere else. I just went to the training camp and did my best, and after that I went to Milwaukee and everything started going well right away.

"(Finley) helped me a lot that first year. He is just a great guy, and we had a great team. It was such a great experience, even off the ice. I was really shy when I came over and everything was different with how you handle things -- every-day things. I was living with Kevin Klein and Paul Brown. It was such a fun year and I learned a lot. It was good for my English language. After that, everything has been easier."

Rinne also pointed out that being in Milwaukee wasn't all that different than growing up in Europe.

"Beer and bratwurst -- same kind of weather, too," he said.

When Rinne made the Predators' roster at the onset of the 2008-09 season, he again exceeded expectations. He grabbed the starting job from Dan Ellis, and steadily has earned his place among the NHL's elite at the position.

His first two seasons were solid, but Rinne found another level in 2010-11. The 28-year-old finished second in the League in save percentage (.930) and third in GAA (2.12) en route to a Vezina Trophy nomination and recognition after the season as a second-team NHL All-Star.

"Obviously I want and I try to play better every single year, but also as a team I think we had our best year by far -- and that's one thing that being a goalie you realize, that you need your teammates, and it kind of goes hand-in-hand," Rinne said. "Those guys helped me and I'll do my best in net. That's how I look at it. Obviously it helps that I have a little more experience. We were able to play pretty consistent throughout the whole season without any big injuries."

His play helped the Predators into the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons, and he also helped Nashville advance to the second round for the first time in franchise history.

The Predators were eliminated in six games by Vancouver, but the Canucks had to earn it. Rinne allowed 13 goals in the series, but twice yielded two goals or less and lost.

"We were really disappointed after last year, even if it was such a good year for us," Rinne said. "We think we can be that much better this year. We can't be satisfied with just advancing past the first round. We want to go all the way."

Rinne has settled in with the Predators and has enjoyed living near downtown Nashville. The city embraced the team during the postseason run, and expectations and excitement in the region has increased.

"It was crazy. It was great -- so much fun," Rinne said. "We have great fans in Nashville, and it is such a fun building to play in. Not only in the playoffs, but during the regular season, too. It is great to see. It is growing and growing all the time in the Nashville area and all over Tennessee.

"(Nashville) is great. There is always something do. Good restaurants, and obviously live music is a big part of it. It is a lot of fun. Being in Nashville, you start to notice hockey more and more. There's people who are starting to wear our jerseys on the streets more."

And yes, the skinny kid from Finland who had to wait all that time for his chance has learned to embrace country music.

"Yeah, a little bit. It is growing into me," Rinne said. "It took me a while. Especially live -- it is really unbelievable live."
Quote of the Day

It was pretty unbelievable...I think (my family in France) is pretty much in front of the TV right now. I don't think I have to wake them up.

— 29-year-old Flyers forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare after scoring his first NHL goal
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