The Nashville Predators made waves on Thursday by signing Pekka Rinne to a seven year, $49-million contract. It is the largest contract in the history of one of the NHL’s smallest markets, and it instantly establishes Rinne as the cornerstone for the team for most of the next decade.
Insofar as the deal shows that the Predators’ ownership is serious about building on last season’s successes, this contract does a good job. It shows the team is willing to expend serious money to keep players that it values. Given that the club was facing the possibility of losing a trio of cornerstone players (Rinne, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter) this is a message that will undoubtedly be received appreciatively by the team’s fans.
Unfortunately, the deal also sends two other messages. First, it shows that one of the league’s most financially cautious clubs hasn’t learned the lessons of the last few seasons, where goaltending performance has fluctuated wildly and competent goaltenders can be had for close to nothing on the free agent market. It also shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how goaltending save percentage should be considered. We’ll start with the second point.
Goaltenders make the bulk of their saves in one of two situations: at even-strength, or while their team is on the penalty kill. Even-strength save percentage can vary significantly, but it is shorthanded save percentage that truly jumps around – a goaltender can go from posting an elite save percentage one year to a terrible one the next. This makes sense given that team performance on the penalty kill tends to vary widely depending on both coaching and personnel; the loss of two players can turn a club’s penalty-killing upside down. It also makes sense when we consider the small number of shots involved – a goalie making over 1000 saves at even-strength might make less than 200 on the penalty kill.
Pekka Rinne’s career penalty-killing save percentage numbers are as follows:
- 2008-09: 163 saves on 188 shots – 0.867 SV%
- 2009-10: 193 saves on 231 shots – 0.835 SV%
- 2010-11: 270 saves on 296 shots – 0.912 SV%
- Career: 637 saves on 726 shots – 0.877 SV%
Last season’s number on the penalty kill is significantly better than in Rinne’s previous two years, and well above the league average.
History shows us that Rinne isn’t the first starting goaltender to post a shorthanded save percentage above 0.900. Four players managed it in 2009-10, three in 2008-09, three in 2007-08 and five in 2006-07. Let’s look at the list, and see how those players did in the preceding and following seasons.
With two exceptions, every player on that list was one-and-done when it came to posting a 0.900 SV% or better while their team was shorthanded. This holds true not just for lower-tier starters, but also for the high-end guys. Ryan Miller won a Vezina on the back of his penalty-killing save percentage in 2009-10, but he regressed to a number more in line with his career totals in 2010-11 – a regression that was entirely predictable. It was a similar story for some of the best goaltenders in the game – guys like Brodeur, Lundqvist, and Luongo – they all had a single season to shine before crashing back down to more realistic totals.
The two exceptions to this pattern are Tim Thomas and Nicklas Backstrom – Thomas had a two-year run while Backstrom had three years with a save percentage above 0.900 on the penalty-kill. Backstrom’s run left town with Jacques Lemaire while Thomas saw his numbers decline a bit last season.
Interestingly, Nashville has seen this happen before – Chris Mason and Dan Ellis both had brief runs as the Predators’ starter, mostly thanks to a strong penalty-killing save percentage. Then they lost the top job when the numbers while shorthanded went the other way. The Predators clearly didn’t pick up on exactly what happened in those two cases.
Given Rinne’s history – two less than stellar years on the penalty-kill, followed by a brilliant performance in 2010-11 – and given what we’ve seen from high-end performers like Lundqvist and Miller, does it make sense to bet on Rinne repeating his performance? Does it make sense to wager on it continuing for the duration of his seven-year contract? No, it doesn’t.
It’s a particularly baffling decision on the Predators’ part given what the goaltending market has looked like the last few years. Pekka Rinne’s current $3.4 million cap hit ranks him 17th among NHL goaltenders – right about average, in other words. Nobody currently makes $7.0 million – we’ve seen high-end guys like Bryzgalov, Luongo and Thomas all sign in the $5.0 – $5.7 million range. For capable but unspectacular starters, the record is even worse; they’ve been going in the $1.0 – $3.0 million range. We’ve even seen some unbelievable bargains, like the Capitals inking Tomas Vokoun to a one-year $1.5 million contract.
This isn’t to say Rinne will implode, or anything like that. In two previous years he’s been an average to slightly above average NHL starter. That’s probably the range he’ll stay in for the duration of his contract.
Unfortunately, that’s simply not good enough for the Predators. They can’t spend to the salary cap maximum, so their dollars are even more dear than they are for most teams, and spending so extravagantly on a good but not elite goaltender may cost them other key pieces.