It would seem that the demise of the big-money NHL goaltender has been greatly exaggerated, in the wake of the Nashville Predators' announcement yesterday that they had come to terms with Pekka Rinne on a seven-year extension worth $49 million. Unless another goaltender signs for even bigger money this summer, the contract will make Rinne the highest-paid netminder in the league starting next season, surpassing current leader Henrik Lundqvist's cap figure of $6.875 million.
Rinne took the leap to stardom with a season that saw him nominated for the Vezina Trophy and named to the league's postseason Second All-Star Team, not to mention ending up fourth in voting for the Hart Trophy. To top off his spectacular regular season campaign, Rinne showed off his explosive combination of size and speed against the high-powered Canucks in the playoffs, keeping the Predators in the series for six games against the President's Trophy winners. This season, it has been more of the same for Nashville's starter. Last night, he posted his third shutout of the young season, giving him 23 shutouts since 2008-09, three better than any other goaltender in the league over that span. All of those achievements came on a very reasonable $3.4 million deal, but with unrestricted free agency looming in 2012, the Predators were motivated to give Rinne a raise of over 200% to lock him up for the better part of this decade.
The curious part of this move is that Nashville seems to be one of the least likely teams that one would expect to commit big dollars to a goalie on a long-term contract. Not only have the Predators been a team spending well below the salary cap, but they also have been very successful at goalie development. Every goalie in the history of the Nashville Predators with at least 10 games played has posted a save percentage above league average over the course of their time in the Music City, which is a very impressive record. Yet, the decision on Rinne seems to suggest that the team either does not expect that trend to continue or that management rates Rinne's talent as so special that it is worth paying a very high premium to lock it up.
Goalie coach Mitch Korn is widely credited with being responsible for the team's "goaltending factory", and it is not as if the cupboards appear to be bare going forward either. Nashville selected Magnus Hellberg 38th overall in the 2011 entry draft, the first goalie selected by any team. Hellberg is still in Sweden, playing in his first season in the Swedish Elite League in Frolunda, and joins Jeremy Smith (a 2007 second rounder), and Chet Pickard (a 2008 first rounder) among Nashville's recent high goaltending picks. Pickard was highly touted but has regressed in his development, having so far been unable to make it out of the ECHL and causing many to question whether he remains a high-level NHL prospect. However, Smith is off to a strong start in the AHL after a solid year as a backup in Milwaukee in 2010-11. The team also has Anders Lindback, a 6'6", 22-year-old Swedish goalie who did an admirable job (.915 in 22 NHL games) as the Predators' backup last year. The Preds' crease situation is so crowded that the team did not re-sign Mark Dekanich, the AHL's 2010-11 save percentage leader, who left this summer to take a $575,000 offer from Columbus.
Nashville's team style also seems to help their goalies. Since Rinne has taken over the reins as the team's starter, the Predators have always been in the top half of the league in shot prevention (although in the early going this year Nashville is at nearly 33 shots against per game). Coach Barry Trotz has enforced a disciplined style of play that has resulted in few penalties against, which combined with a strong penalty killing effort has left Predators goalies facing a lower rate of shots against while shorthanded (since the Lockout, 18.3% of shots against have come with Nashville down a man, 1.7% lower than the league average). Some have suspected that in addition to these factors, some of the Nashville's excellent goaltending numbers have resulted from the team's strong defensive play, although that has not been proven.
Besides his teammates and his coach, there is good reason to suspect that there is one other Predators employee who is helping out Rinne's stats, the team's official scorer. Throughout the history of the franchise, the official records claim that Nashville's goalies have faced more shots against at home than they have on the road. That is an unusual split even for an individual goalie even over the course of a single year, much less every goalie over a dozen seasons.
Nashville Predators, 1998-99 to 2010-11:
Home: 2.36 GAA, .921 save %, 29.8 shots/60 minutes
Road: 2.80 GAA, .905 save %, 29.4 shots/60 minutes
Narrowing the range to seasons since the Lockout only, the numbers are very similar:
Nashville Predators, 2005-06 to 2010-11:
Home: 2.31 GAA, .923 save %, 30.1 shots/60 minutes
Road: 2.73 GAA, .910 save %, 30.3 shots/60 minutes
It seems even more unlikely that Nashville would actually have faced more shots against at home given that the combined shutout rate was also much higher at home (62% higher since the Lockout and 72% higher since 1998-99). The GAA and shutout numbers seem to suggest that Nashville's goalies got a slight boost in their statistics because of generous shot counting in their home rink. Pekka Rinne himself has a career save percentage of .927 at home compared to just .911 on the road, which is right in line with his teammates' numbers (although in 2010-11 and 2011-12 combined, Rinne's road save percentage has improved to .926).
Excluding Rinne, Nashville's goalies have combined for a team save percentage of .911 throughout franchise history, .004 better than the league average of .907. It is not clear exactly how this result can be broken down between goaltending talent, team defense, special teams discipline, and home scorer bias, but the results are still impressive. With the same goaltending coach and development system in place to develop the talented prospects in the pipeline and with similar team effects likely to be at play, that would give reason to believe that the Predators would have had a good chance at achieving above-average goaltending results even if they chose to trade Rinne or allow him to walk away in free agency.
The potential team effect issues and Nashville's goalie development track record suggest that the best way to evaluate the team's decision is to compare Rinne against his own team, rather than against an average goalie or typical replacement level. Since 2008-09, Rinne has outperformed his creasemates by the margin of .921 to .907, which at first glance makes it look like he has been a huge difference-maker. When digging deeper, that margin is certainly overstated. First, Rinne played 80% of the minutes at home compared to just 58% on the road, allowing him to take advantage of possible scorer bias and/or Nashville's superior play on their home rink. In addition, Rinne's backups look like they were a bit unlucky in a small sample size on special teams (.835 save percentage while shorthanded). Even strength play is generally considered the best situation to use to project goaltender performance, and there Rinne's overall advantage over his teammates was just .929 to .923.
Assuming that the same factors will continue in place to benefit Nashville's goalies and goalie development, the team should be able to achieve results at league average (.914) or better even in a hypothetical no Rinne scenario. The only downside is that those results would probably come at the cost of increased variability because of the difficulty of assessing goaltending talent. Based on Rinne's salary, Hockey Prospectus' GVS formula suggests that he should be contributing about 20 GVT per season to be worth his contract. Assuming a workload of 2000 shots against per season, he would have to outplay Nashville's other goalie options by at least .010 just for the team to break even in terms of production per dollar spent.
If Rinne can continue to perform at the level he did last season (.930), then that should be no problem. If, however, Rinne's true talent is equal to his career rate of .921, then it seems that Nashville is missing an opportunity to deliver more efficient returns per dollar by avoiding the big money contract and betting that one of the youngsters on the way could be groomed to take over the starting role. Based on the historical goalie population, it seems much more likely that Rinne's talent is indeed closer to .921 than .930. After all, Dominik Hasek is the only goalie who has managed to be at .930 or better over an extended run of seasons, and a conservative forecaster would point out that Rinne has only had one elite season in his career. Even if the official scorer was not padding his numbers in 2010-11, Rinne still benefitted from a low number of shots against on the penalty kill and an unusually high save percentage on special teams.
At 29 years old, the standard career curve assumptions would project that Rinne has many good years ahead of him, but that he is likely already at his peak level of performance. Even if he is able to greatly outperform his contract next year and the year after, it is still not unusual for goaltenders to lose effectiveness quickly in their mid-thirties, or for an elite netminder to be dragged back into mediocrity because of injuries, or even for a good starting goalie to continue to play well but still be overtaken by a young prospect who turns out to be elite. The 2011-12 version of Rinne may be very different from what he looks like in 2018-19.
Based on their track record of goaltending success, one would have to give the Predators some benefit of the doubt with respect to their goaltending decision-making. They obviously rate Pekka Rinne very highly, and although there are a few reasons for scepticism on some of the numbers, his recent results do generally support that high rating. However, it still seems that Rinne's price is too high relative to his value, particularly when goaltending is an organizational strength. If anything, the team's development system means that Rinne should be worth less in Nashville than he would be in other places around the league, making the decision to anoint him the highest-paid puckstopper in the game a questionable one from a cap management perspective.
Philip Myrland is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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