The Waiting Game: part 1 (Pekka Rinne)
“I’m very, very grateful to the organization for being patient with me. They never rushed me and they always had a plan for me, even when I didn’t know it.”
Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne wasn’t always one of the top three goaltenders Finland has ever produced. Back in the mid-2000’s, Rinne had to wait for his chance at the National Hockey League like everybody else.
“Obviously it was my dream to play in the NHL but, in the first season, I was just excited to go to Milwaukee,” he said in an exclusive interview earlier this year. “I knew that I had to work my way through.”
In that first year playing in North America, the rookie netminder assumed control of the Admirals crease and went 30-18-2. He played nearly 3,000 minutes and posted a solid 2.82 goals-against average with two shutouts. Then, in the playoffs, Rinne led them just short of their ultimate goal.
“We had a good year my first year, going all the way to the Calder Cup Final,” Rinne said. “So, in my second year, I knew I’d be in Milwaukee again but I ended up missing half the season with shoulder surgery.”
After using the first few months of the AHL season to recover, Rinne returned to the Ads crease and posted a stellar .920 save percentage and 2.34 GAA. If that wasn’t enough, he was nearly unbeatable in his final 14 games, suffering just two regulation losses.
Everything looked promising for Rinne. In his first 80 AHL games, he amassed 45 wins, five shutouts and was an AHL All-Star. Furthermore, he had proven the shoulder injury was a fluke as he rebounded to lead Milwaukee back to the playoffs in impressive fashion. Then, in the off-season, the Predators traded Tomas Vokoun to the Florida Panthers leaving Chris Mason as the only veteran goalie in the organization.
In other words, the table was set for Rinne to take his place on the NHL roster.
“But then they brought Dan Ellis to training camp,” Rinne recalled. “And he just played better than me so they made the decision to send me down for a third year.”
A crushing blow to a young 25-year old hockey player.
“That was probably the hardest for me,” he said. “I was disappointed with myself. That was the first time I was really looking forward to having a chance to play up here. But now, looking back, I think that was good for me, to have a full, strong season.”
The key? Rinne didn’t let it get to his head. This time, he was the unflappable starter in the Admirals’ crease, playing in 65 games (no other Milwaukee goalie appeared in more than nine), logging just short of 3,900 minutes, posting five shutouts and amassing a league-leading 36 wins.
Instead of heading back to Wisconsin hanging his head, he used it as motivation and made a statement.
“Obviously, at the time, you get frustrated,” Rinne said of the experience. “It can be frustrating to wait for your turn. Three years is a long time when you’re a young guy. But you can only worry about working hard and doing the right things.”
And that’s exactly what Rinne did. Now he’s a three-time Vezina Trophy finalist, an NHL All-Star, a World Championships MVP, Nashville’s franchise record holder in games (447) wins (238) and shutouts (40) and just represented his country at the World Cup of Hockey.
“There’s a lot of guys who make the jump when they’re 22 or 23 years old and maybe they’re not ready,” he said. “The guys who start playing at an early age like [Marc-Andre] Fleury and Carey Price and Kari Lehtonen – guys who have been in the NHL since they were young kids — they’re special. Especially as a goalie, it’s such a demanding position mentally.”
Headed into the 2016-17 campaign, Rinne has three years left on his deal. When it ends, he’ll be 36 years old. With that in mind, the Predators franchise knows they need a succession plan. Even if not then, at some point. As of 2016, that succession plan seems to involve blue chip prospect Juuse Saros.
CLICK HERE to read PART 2 OF THIS THREE-PART FEATURE.
PHOTO CREDIT: Brooks Bratten // Nashville Predators