As hard as the Nashville Predators worked to stabilize their season during the first half of last season, they were unable to do so without injured goaltender Pekka Rinne.
The two-time Vezina Trophy finalist had major hip surgery in May 2013. Less than three weeks into the 2013-14 season, the hip became infected and he was sidelined for more than four months.
With the Predators using a young defense that included a 19-year-old and three 23-year-olds, the goaltending duties fell to two players who entered last season with one combined game of NHL experience, Carter Hutton and Marek Mazanec. Hutton eventually became consistent, but there were some growing pains along the way; the Predators had a four-game losing streak in November in which they were outscored 17-2.
Rinne owns a career save percentage of .918, although that dipped to a career low (in seasons in which he has played in more than two games) of .902 last season. The four other goalies used by the Predators posted a collective save percentage of .904 in 2013-14.
It seems a fairly safe bet that if the Predators had a healthy Rinne and if he played anywhere close to his career norms, Nashville would have been a playoff team last season.
The question is whether the 31-year-old Rinne, who led the NHL in wins in 2011-12 with 43, will return to top form. Predators general manager David Poile is betting that he will, citing the fact that Rinne was named the most valuable player at the World Championship in May. Rinne had a .928 save percentage and three shutouts during the tournament, leading Finland to the gold medal game, where it lost 5-2 to Russia.
He also finished last season with two shutouts and one regulation loss in his final seven games. Poile said the hip severely curtailed Rinne's offseason regimen in 2012 (a year before he had surgery), making this summer his first normal one in three years.
"Pekka was good at the end of the season," Poile said. "I think he confirmed that to himself by playing at the World Championships and being named MVP of the World Championships. We've been in touch with him over the summer and he feels really great, which he hadn't been able to work out actually the last two summers…. A healthy Pekka Rinne makes everybody look better."
One factor that remains an unknown in terms of how it will affect Rinne is a change at the goaltending coach position. Mitch Korn, who departed to follow former Nashville coach Barry Trotz to the Washington Capitals, earned something of a reputation as a guru at the position. Korn played an integral role in developing Rinne, who was an eighth-round pick (No. 258) in 2004.
The Predators' new goaltending coach is Ben Vanderklok, who worked under Korn and served as Nashville's assistant goaltending coach for the past five seasons. In a news release announcing the promotion of Vanderklok, Poile called him a "natural fit" and cited Vanderklok's history of working with Korn.
In the highly competitive Central Division, Rinne could be a difference-maker. Rinne is the only goalie in the division other than Corey Crawford of the Chicago Blackhawks who has won all four games in a playoff series, a feat he has accomplished twice.
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