Nashville Predators all-world goaltender Pekka Rinne wants to play all 48 games of the shrunken NHL season, starting with Saturday night’s sold-out season opener against Columbus at Bridgestone Arena.
“Obviously, that’s what you want to do,” said Rinne, the two-time Vezina Trophy nominee for league’s best goaltender. “Anytime you have a chance to play, I think that is the best thing in the whole world. You always want to be on the ice.”
For a moment, Rinne sounds convincing enough that you might wonder if he really could pull it off. After all, he was in net in 73 of 82 regular-season games last season.
That’s not all the games in a season, but still a workmanlike 89 percent. And he was pretty good, too, winning 43 games with five shutouts and leading the Predators past Central Division rival Detroit in the first round of the playoffs before falling to upstart Phoenix in the second round.
“The best goalies want to play every game,” said Predators goaltenders coach Mitch Korn, whose stable of goaltenders with the Predators over the years has helped populate nets around the league.
“(New Jersey Devils goaltender) Marty Brodeur wants to play every game,” Korn added. “(New York Rangers goalie Henrik) Lundqvist wants to play every game. Pekka wants to play every game. I don’t think that’s bad.
“Players play. That’s what they want to do. Let’s face it. (Predators star defenseman) Shea Weber, healthy, will play every game. So, the argument is, ‘Then why shouldn’t I then?” That’s in Pekka Rinne’s mind.”
But with nine back-to-back dates dotting the 14-week regular season, which runs through April 27, coupled with leg-zapping western road swings to Canada and the West Coast and no more than three days off at any given time between games, then it’s unlikely – or prudent — that Rinne will work them all.
Enter once again Chris Mason, a popular former Predator among coaches, players and fans from two previous stints. He’s back for a third go at goaltender after two seasons with St. Louis and two with Atlanta/Winnipeg.
Last season with the Jets, he went 8-7 in 20 games after going 13-13 in 33 games the previous season in Atlanta before the franchise moved to Winnipeg.
“I think we are just going to see how it goes,” Mason said of how much he might play as Rinne’s backup. “You can expect a lot of games from Pekka. I’ll be there when he needs a break. I’ll definitely use my practice time to my advantage and try to get ready that way.”
Last year’s promising backup, Anders Lindback, was traded to Tampa Bay in the offseason. But Rinne is happy to have Mason return to the fold.
“It’s great to have him back,” Rinne said. “For the entire organization, it’s a pretty comfortable situation. He used to be here, knows everybody, knows the fans, too. It’s a great situation.”
Call it a mutual admiration society between Predators goaltenders. Count Mason among the growing contingent of hockey folks who think Rinne is now the best goaltender in the world.
“Pekka is unreal,” Mason said. “He is an awesome guy. And he’s as humble as they come.”
And the kicker:
“In my opinion, he’s the top goalie in the NHL and for the world, for that matter,” Mason added. “I can’t say enough good things about the guy. He’s a great person. I feel really fortunate getting to play with him.”
World’s best? Korn knows that is subjective and in the eye of the beholder.
“In the NHL are the 60 best goalies in the world,” said Korn, who like Barry Trotz as head coach and David Poile as general manager has been the franchise’s only goaltenders coach.
“I don’t want to say the top. I don’t know if there is a top goalie because things change. The team has an impact on it. There have not been many back-to-back Vezina winners because there are too many variables that affect it. He is one of the best guys in his profession, though.”
Going with last season’s breakdown of Rinne starts compared to the upcoming 48-game season, he would project to start 42 this time around. But there is much less rest between games than during a regular 82-game season.
Making the ultimate call on goaltender starts is in the hands of Trotz, but Rinne’s determination and success, coupled with Korn’s feel for his charges, will ultimately determine just how many games Rinne will play.
“Every season, it’s been going in the right direction,” Rinne said while noting that he understands he now ranks among the league’s goaltending elite, plus being homeland Finland’s promise for worldwide hockey superiority.
“In the last two or three years, the key has been staying healthy and playing a lot of games,” Rinne said. “That’s been the thing that makes me better.”
So, how many games will Rinne play in goal? For Korn, the answer will come soon enough.
“We are going to be very flexible and let what occurs dictate it,” Korn said. “One thumbnail could change everything. So, I don’t think we have really completely looked and said, ‘He’s doing this one, and he’s doing that one.’ I just think we are going to go with the flow and see how it goes and be able to adjust.”
For Rinne, 30, it’s bring on his first go-around with a shortened season.
“I think it’s a new experience with the lockout and having this kind of schedule,” Rinne said. “I think the emphasis is to start the season and see how demanding it is, physically and mentally.”