When the news came down on Thursday that the Nashville Predators had signed Pekka Rinne to a franchise-record $49M deal over seven years, I have to admit, I was fairly shocked. The Preds have, for the most part, been a franchise that’s avoided the inefficiencies of the free agent market, consistently putting together a playoff-calibre team on a payroll right around the salary-cap midpoint. They’ve done this to both minimize player costs and maximize revenue sharing income, which makes sense in a market that was on very shaky ground just a handful of years ago, and still ranks hockey behind the NFL and college sports. That the Preds suddenly went out and started spending money isn’t entirely a shock: they were always going to have to do so in order to keep this group together. What stunned me is that they blew a massive amount of dough on a goaltender, particularly one whose career numbers are barely above average, outside of his recent career year. It goes against everything that we’ve learned in recent years about how to allocate salary cap space, and raises a number of red flags for the franchise going forward. Namely:
1) Nashville isn’t paying for that big of a boost.
Pekka Rinne has played three full seasons in the NHL, posting save percentages of .917, .911, and .930, for a career average right around .920. That sounds pretty good at first, but there are a couple of issues here. One, last season’s .930 is pretty far out of line with the other two; I’ll dig deeper into that below, but I figure that’s skewing the average a little bit. The second, and more immediate, concern is that even if Rinne’s true talent is around .920, that isn’t worlds better than average. For comparison’s sake, through Rinne’s career, NHL average SV% has been about .913. That works out to an extra goal saved every 150 shots. Over the last three years, Rinne’s faced about 30 shots per night, and played 60 nights per year, so we’re talking about an extra goal saved every five games, or about 12 per year. Obviously, that isn’t nothing – there’s a definite difference between a 20-goal and 30-goal scorer – but it isn’t enough of a difference to be worth that kind money. The difference between 20 and 30 goals for a forward is somewhere in the neighbourhood of $2-3M; the gap between Rinne and a League-average goalie might be double that.
2) Nashville is paying for a career year.
Revisiting last season, one of the significant anomalies is his save percentage on the penalty kill (PKSV%). League average PKSV% has been holding steady at around .865-.870 for over a decade now; Rinne’s PKSV% last year was .912. That number has a strong likelihood of regressing to the mean over time, meaning he’s unlikely to ever have as good of a season as that again. By the same token, he’s also unlikely to have as bad of a year as 2009-10, when he posted a career-worst .911 overall SV%, based in part on a PKSV% of .8351. All of which is a roundabout way of saying, goaltender performance is too variable to bank on from year to year, and paying for a career year, as I’ve discussed previously, is almost certain to come back and haunt the team at some point down the road. I’m not saying that Rinne isn’t a good goaltender, just that he isn’t Dominik Hasek-good, as he looked last season.
3) Goalies get worse with age.
It’s not a guarantee, of course: Hasek and Tim Thomas stand out as examples of guys who put up multiple fantastic seasons deep into their 30s. But as a general rule, goalies, like most players, will peak in their mid-20s and then slowly decline from there. Rinne just turned 29; his extension will run out shortly before he’s 37. There’s reason to question whether he’s a .920 goaltender right now; unless he is the Finnish Tim Thomas, the latter half of that contract is going to be a millstone.
4) This contract breaks Nashville’s salary structure.
Like I said earlier, Nashville has always tried to stay around the salary-cap midpoint for financial reasons. If they spend $7M on the goalie – probably twice as much as they should – that’s a lot of money that can’t go towards resigning Ryan Suter and/or Shea Weber, the backbones of their defence. Or, alternatively, it’s money they can no longer pay for a high-end forward, assuming there’s any such beast available come July 1. Much as some have suggested that the Preds would be screwed without Rinne, we thought the same thing after they lost Tomas Vokoun, but they’ve continued to find goalies that can excel in their defence-first system. Besides, if the last few playoffs have taught us anything, it’s that big-name, money goalies are no more likely than their less-heralded colleagues to take their team to the Finals or win a Stanley Cup. If you want to win in this league, you need quality talent both up front and on your blueline. If I was in Poile’s shoes, I’d be offering Rinne a deal comparable to that of Antti Niemi – or even a bit less, since he doesn’t have a Stanley Cup ring as leverage – and if he doesn’t like it, I’ll take my chances with Anders Lindback. Goalies like Pekka Rinne don’t quite grow on trees, but they’re a hell of a lot more common than defencemen like Shea Weber.
Now, there’s always the possibility that the Preds’ owners are willing to open their wallets, forego revenue sharing, and make a run at the Cup, gambling that playoff revenues will keep them in the black. If so, it’s a great step forward for the franchise and their fans, who have suffered through a lot to get to this point. But at the same time, they recently let go of Steve Sullivan and Joel Ward, two important players in their first-ever playoff series victory last year. More importantly, even if they are now ready to spend, this isn’t the way to do it. Even if you’re a cap team, you still have to manage within a budget, so you still need to make the most efficient use of your money. In that respect, signing Rinne for as much and as long as the Nashville Predators did remains the wrong move.
1 – Interestingly, his even-strength SV%, a better gauge of his true talent, didn’t swing nearly as hard: .925 in 2009-10 vs. .932 in 2010-11, both above-average numbers.