Predators goaltender won Vezina Trophy; at forefront of equipment, technical innovations
by Kevin Woodley / NHL.com Correspondent
Editor’s note: As part of NHL.com’s end-of-year package, correspondent Kevin Woodley is using his final weekly column of 2018 to give out the first annual Unmasked Goaltender of the Year Award. The winner this year is Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne.
Pekka Rinne won his first Vezina Trophy in 2017-18 and continues to play at a high level this season, helping make the Nashville Predators goalie the inaugural Unmasked Goaltender of the Year.
Rinne continues to be near the top of the NHL statistically, but numbers are one of several factors that determined the winner of this new award.
It will recognize someone — or something — that dominated the conversation about goalies during the past 12 months. It won’t always be a goalie who wins; it could be a statistical revolution tied to the position, an equipment innovation, a coach who revitalizes careers, or a new save technique.
Rinne checked several of those boxes in 2018.
Through the Christmas break, he was 37-14-2 with seven shutouts, a 2.16 goals-against average and a .928 save percentage in the 2018 calendar year. His wins are fourth-most in 2018, and no goalie with at least 40 starts since Jan. 1 has a better GAA or save percentage. Marc-Andre Fleury of the Vegas Golden Knights has eight shutouts.
After winning the Vezina Trophy voted as the NHL’s best goaltender last season with a 42-14-4 record, 2.31 goals-against average and .927 save percentage, the 36-year-old from Finland continues to look for ways to improve.
Rinne is one of the first NHL goalies to add a new product from CCM called Speed Skin to the inside edge of his leg pads where they make contact with the ice. The Speed Skin material creates less friction than its predecessors, making it easier for goalies to slide along the ice faster and with less effort.
Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers was an equally strong candidate and a leader in the equipment innovation category. His work with Bauer to develop their C.O.R.Tech skin helped revolutionize sliding, create purposely active rebounds and allow for digitally printed graphics on goalie pads, but it has been an ongoing process since 2012. Rinne gets the more recent nod as the first to add CCM’s answer to better sliding.
“Just the whole mindset of being more efficient, not needing to expend so much energy,” Rinne said of his willingness to try new equipment. “Any advantage helps. It started as something I just wanted to try, and I liked it.”
Rinne has taken a similar approach to his technical evolution through the years. He’s always sought ways to quiet his style of play, considered by critics early in his career to be overactive for a 6-foot-5 goalie. He has done it without sacrificing the active hands and explosive reactions that set him apart and keep him on the highlight reel.
That was the case again last season. After helping the Predators reach the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, Rinne took a big step technically by narrowing his stance, especially when the play was above the top of the face-off circles. It keeps his chest more upright and prevents him from getting locked in too soon to a lower, wider stance that he adopts when play moves closer to him.
Like the equipment change, Rinne called his new style more efficient, saying it was easier to move in the upright stance than when hunched over. The new position helped slow the game down for him.
“I feel like it’s a mental thing too, almost like you are in the driver’s seat,” said Rinne, who is 14-8-1 this season with a 2.15 goals-against average and .925 save percentage.
Rinne isn’t the only goalie making that adjustment as the NHL game becomes faster.
Two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky adopted a posture early in an offensive attack like Rinne’s, but Bobrovsky evolved it into a three-stance system since being traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2012.
The change was initiated by Columbus goaltending coach Ian Clark, who is displaying signs of early success with similar adjustments to goalies Jacob Markstrom and Anders Nilsson in his first season coaching them with the Vancouver Canucks.
Rinne didn’t need a trade to initiate his change, which checks one more box as the inaugural Unmasked Goalie of the Year: He is an increasingly rare franchise goalie.
After signing a two-year, $10 million contract on Nov. 4 to stay in Nashville through the 2020-21 season, Rinne is the second most-tenured goalie with one team in the NHL behind Lundqvist. Rinne has been with the Predators since the 2005-06 season; Lundqvist joined the Rangers earlier that season.
Playing for one team has become uncommon, but when added to the equipment and technical evolutions, as well as his success on the ice, including more consistency as his game tightens up, Rinne emerged as our inaugural Unmasked Goaltender of the Year.