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Sometimes very good players will have an inexplicably bad year.
It doesn't happen often, mind you, but when it does, people collectively lose their minds speculating about, “What's wrong with so-and-so?” The most recent example of this is Sidney Crosby, who “only” had 84 points in 77 games last season and is now on 40 in 46 this year (but also 13 in his last 10, because he's Sidney Crosby).
The amount of articles churned out about whether Crosby is “done” has been perilously high for the last year-plus, and to some extent it's understandable. A lot of those articles have been shouted down as being a little short-sighted, because the puck just isn't going in for Crosby at the same rate it once did, but everything else is more or less in line with his long-demonstrated talent level.
So maybe the fact that no one is writing these stories about Pekka Rinne — the All-Star with the .904 save percentage in 40 games this year — is just a sign that we're collectively getting smarter about the ways in which we evaluate performance at the NHL level, and that we've all learned to look past the randomness of goals scored and allowed, to see the process that's going on under the hood.
No one is writing about Rinne because he's on a team that generally doesn't get a lot of attention on a national basis but is still a pretty decent club in the grand scheme of things, and because he's probably “only” the seventh- or eighth-best goalie in the world. If this were Henrik Lundqvist struggling, people would be pretty concerned about this 33-year-old goalie maybe having hit a career wall. If this were a goalie in Toronto struggling, people would be screaming in the streets about how he's the reason the Leafs are well outside the playoff picture.
Moreover, the Predators spent much of the season talking about the need to upgrade the offense, which they eventually did in the Ryan Johansen trade. Johansen has nine points in eight games since the swap, and the Preds' offense has generated 16 goals in their last five games, so it looks like that problem has been sorted out.
As a result, overall the Predators are seemingly okay: Two points out of a playoff spot in the toughest division in the league by a fair shout. But the problem is they're also currently carrying the second-best possession numbers in the league.
But Rinne's .904 is killing them. The league average save percentage so far this season is an insane .916, meaning Rinne is pretty far below. The Predators don't give up a lot of shots on goal, so the fact that he's only faced 1,047 in 40 appearances is helpful in limiting the impact his disastrous play has had. But mathematically, that still means he's cost his team 12 goals versus the league average, which is roughly the equivalent of a little more than four points in the standings. And that also has to come with the caveat that Rinne is paid quite well ($7 million AAV) to provide a save percentage well above the league average.
Again, he's clearly an elite goaltender over the course of his career (.918 in 421 games, which is a sizable enough sample that we can say it's his true talent level), and he's coming off a season in which he finished second in Vezina voting. So we have to ask what's wrong with him now.
What's interesting, though, is that this is hardly an isolated incident when it comes to Rinne not being particularly good. Most of those issues, though, can be explained away on some level. He was only .902 in 2013-14, though when he missed most of the year with a very serious health issue that could have ended his career. He was also only .910 in the lockout-shortened season, but that's not terrible, and it's also a smaller sample than is really fair to evaluate.
But on the whole, if you look at what he's done the last four seasons — which I think is fair because that's when he turned 30, and to some extent the ability to stay healthy is a repeatable skill — we have a sample of 4,600 shots, and he's only stopped .913. On some level, that makes the nearly Vezina-worthy season last year the outlier. It's also well below the .921 he posted across close to 7,100 shots in his 20s, and also slightly below the league average during that same stretch.
However, it's not an issue where you turn 30 and someone from the NHL comes to your house to rip up your “Good Goalie Club” membership card right in front of you. Henrik Lundqvist is several months older than Rinne and still playing outstanding hockey behind a considerably worse team.
Rinne himself recently noted that the team in front of him hasn't necessarily been all that great this season, and that's true to an extent, but he also acknowledged a lost ability to stop breakaways and 2-on-1s. He also used to be elite when it came to controlling rebounds, and just from watching the games you see he's giving up more goals on second chances than he used to.
So it's important to take a look at the process behind why Rinne has crumbled this year, and whether there's anything that can be done by the players in front of him to help straighten things out. And right now my working theory is that it has to do with shot quality.
You'll note that for much of last year, the number of high-quality shots he was facing was at career-low levels. That is, of course, going to help keep a save percentage exceptionally high, as it was last year. Other than that, Rinne faced a roughly career-average level of medium-quality shots, and a relatively small number of low-quality as well.
But now that high-danger shots are back to normal and have been for much of the year, and he's still facing a relatively small number of low-quality shots, the damage done by a diminishing ability to stop those from immediately around the net is considerable. That's some very, very good shot suppression from the Preds, and I don't think you can reasonably expect a team to only concede a little more than four high-quality shots per 60 minutes on a consistent basis. So if this is more or less the best they're going to be able to do, Rinne needs to step up his own play.
Indeed, it seems that when things go badly for most goaltenders, it's because they start giving up a lot of goals on high-danger shots, which makes sense. They face fewer of those per game than any other, so if you're only facing eight a night and get beat for two of them, that's going to crater your numbers. And to some extent, that seems to be what's happening with Rinne.
In the last year or so, his save percentages across medium- and low-quality shots are more or less where they should be — though again, if you're facing fewer low-quality chances, which Rinne is, that cuts out some percentage-padding shots that would otherwise help you considerably — but he's had a lot of difficulty on high-quality chances relative to career norms for much of this season. And that's despite a brief spike in December.
There's no question that players, regardless of position, typically end up losing their fastball in their early 30s, and it would seem Rinne is no different. For his sake, and that of the Predators, you kind of hope there's a light at the end of this tunnel, because it would be a shame for a team this good to miss the playoffs because it tied itself to a goalie that saw his talent dry up earlier than many would have had reason to expect.
The good news is that Rinne has played very well in his last two games, albeit against the Jets and Oilers. And also that things can't get much worse.
What We Learned
Anaheim Ducks: With Saturday's win over Detroit, the Ducks are up to four wins in their last five games, and 9-3-1 in their last 13. This has to be worrisome for the teams above them.
Arizona Coyotes: The way Louis Domingue is playing, they're probably hoping Mike Smith doesn't come back too quickly now.
Boston Bruins: Sure they needed a shootout to beat Columbus, but it's two points, and Jonas Gustavsson was in net. You take that W every time. They're now just a point back of Tampa and Detroit for second in the division, with a game in hand.
Detroit Red Wings: One guy you don't want to leave uncovered is probably Henrik Zetterberg. I dunno.
Florida Panthers: All blessings to Aaron Ekblad, who is a delight to watch and, I'm sure, a nightmare to play against.
Los Angeles Kings: Wow, this is very unlike Milan Lucic. Kevin Connauton is just lucky his testicles are intact. Maybe he's worried Louis Domingue doesn't know who he is.
New Jersey Devils: Over the last week-plus, the Devils have played almost exclusively teams for which Lee Stempniak used to play. And he has 3-2-5 in those three games. The lesson here is don't anger Lee Stempniak.
Pittsburgh Penguins: This is one of those great games where Evgeni Malkin just goes “I got this, guys.”
St. Louis Blues: The Blues might be gearing up to make a trade here soon. They could use at least one.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Well, these things happen. The Bolts are still a good team.
Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs are probably going to look to trade a lot of their upcoming UFAs. They might be able to get a decent haul for the whole crew. All according to plan.
Play of the Weekend
Nice little play from Ryan Kesler to get past a big hit. I love any goal scored with the extra attacker.
Gold Star Award
Evgeni Malkin is up to 10 hat tricks in his career, which feels like a hell of a lot. Until you realize Mario Lemieux and Brett Hull split the NHL record with 33 apiece. Can you even imagine that in today's league?
Minus of the Weekend
Nice to be reminded that Milan Lucic is indeed still a reckless baby. Sucker punches a guy, screams at a goalie, whines to the refs the whole way off the ice.
Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year
User “periferal” is thinking about some things.
Travis Hamonic, Michael Dal College, 2016 1st Round Pick
Because if there's one thing Edmonton needs, it's more first-round picks.
There's your answer, fishbulb.
(All stats via War On Ice unless otherwise noted.)
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