"Goaltending is 75 percent of your hockey team, unless you don't have it. Then it's 100 percent."
The adage is the handiwork of coach-turned-broadcaster Harry Neale. Or maybe of the late Pat Burns, the Stanley Cup--winning coach who repeated it with such ardor throughout his 14-year career with four teams that sometimes he is credited as its source. The origin is less critical than the point: The primacy of the goalie is conventional wisdom in the NHL. "Our record wouldn't be what it is without goaltending," Predators general manager David Poile says. "As an expansion team, goaltending has been one of the major reasons we've been competitive and have made the playoffs six of the last seven years. It's the foundation."
Poile buttressed his foundation for seven more years on Nov. 3, when he signed Pekka Rinne to a $49 million contract extension, the richest long-term deal for a goalie on an annual value basis in the salary-cap era. The contract had unassailable internal logic. The 29-year-old Vezina Trophy finalist would have been eligible for free agency at the end of the season. "If we didn't give him a seven-year contract," Poile says, "on July 1 someone else would have." (In the Predators' perfect world, Rinne is the domino that topples Nashville defensemen Ryan Suter, another soon-to-be unrestricted free agent, and Shea Weber, who can walk in 2013, convincing them to re-up.) So there's that. On the other hand, the famously cost-conscious Predators have a backup, Anders Lindback, a Rinne doppelganger, who might turn out to be every bit as good and far more cost effective. In this context, handing the fattest contract in the history of this penny-pinching franchise to a goalie who has won one playoff series seems as whimsical as Poile's announcing he had signed a unicorn.
Long-term contracts for goalies generally have been a mug's game. And with the exception of the seven-year deal that Marc-Andre Fleury signed with the Penguins in 2008, and the four-year, $20 million extension that Tim Thomas signed with the Bruins in '09, the mug has not been a Stanley Cup. The Canucks' Roberto Luongo, who in '09 signed a 12-year, $64 million extension, melted down in the finals against Thomas last June, and despite a strong stretch last month when he won four straight and nine of 11, every match seems like a referendum on his play. The Islanders' Rick DiPietro, with his 15-year-goalie-for-life deal, has been a disaster. The eternally goalie-bereft Flyers, belatedly embracing a Neale-ist approach, signed the chatty Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51 million contract last June after his four seasons in low-pressure Phoenix. He has rewarded their faith with a save percentage of .891, well below the modern Mendoza line of .900. Goalie. Nine years. Philly. Nothing possibly could go wrong here.
"Risky?" Poile repeats. "Every time you sign a player, there's a risk. Say you have a great hitter, a terrific third baseman who might lead the league in home runs. But if you don't have pitching, where are you? Goaltending is pitching."
There is, of course, another goaltending truism, courtesy of Academy Award--winning screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President's Men). Ruminating on an apparently unrelated topic, Hollywood, Goldman could have been referring to the crease when he wrote, "Nobody knows anything."
As Oilers coach Tom Renney says, goaltending is not an exact science—even if Bryzgalov did wax about the vastness of the universe during his recent star turn in HBO's 24/7 Flyers/Rangers: Road to the NHL Winter Classic.
At midseason of 2011--12 the only science that goaltending resembles is the sort practiced by Dr. Frankenstein. Although the first half hardly has been bereft of story lines—Sidney Crosby's ongoing concussion problems; the NHLPA's gloved slap to the face of the league over the proposed realignment, an affront that heralds a duel over a new collective bargaining agreement next summer; a passel of coaching changes; the staying power of the champion Bruins—the goaltending kaleidoscope dominates the landscape because it has affected perhaps two thirds of NHL teams.
The goalie with the most career wins, the Devils' once peerless Martin Brodeur, was tied for 22nd in that category among NHL goaltenders through Sunday, with 13. One of the top-rated goalies, the Blues' Brian Elliott, has made the leap from leaky to bulletproof. And the Carl Sagan of the Crease, Bryzgalov, didn't even play in the Winter Classic, as backup Sergei Bobrovsky ($900,000 plus bonuses) allowed a shaky short-side goal in the Rangers' 3--2 alfresco win on Jan. 2.
Maybe a half season is too small a sample size to definitively pronounce on goaltending's shifting sands—stalwarts such as Thomas and the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist have been exceptional, for example—but Sabres coach Lindy Ruff needed a sample size of three soft goals in just 6½ minutes before yanking all-American puck-stopping machine Ryan Miller in a Nov. 2 loss to Philadelphia. Ten days later Miller ($6.25 million annually through 2013--14) again departed early in favor of the stumpy Jhonas Enroth, this time with a concussion. The '10 Vezina Trophy winner and Olympic standout had been wallpapered at the face-off dot by onrushing and unapologetic Bruins winger Milan Lucic, who skated off with little more than a charging minor. (The Buffalo players' on-ice response to seeing their purported meal ticket run curiously was as mute as the superfluous "h" in Enroth's first name.) Meanwhile Miller's humdrum season—three more losses than wins, a 2.97 goals-against average—drew the arched eyebrow of Sabres owner Terry Pegula. After a humiliating 8--3 defeat in Pittsburgh on Dec. 17, a game in which Miller was pulled twice, Pegula, standing outside the dressing room and practically begging to be quoted, said, "We saw some great goaltending tonight, didn't we? If they think they played well, we've got more problems."
Nikolai Khabibulin, having a Phoenix-like resurrection in Edmonton despite losses in 10 of his past 12 starts, has fewer problems. Since winning the Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004 and signing a budget-wrecking four-year, $27 million contract with the Blackhawks the following summer, Khabibulin basically had been taking a seven-year victory lap. Now he has a commendable .919 save percentage playing behind a team that can be slovenly in its own end. Hands up, please, if you saw this outbreak of competence coming after an off-season in which the goalie did time in the Maricopa County Jail for "extreme DUI." (O.K., the Tent City jail in Arizona wasn't Attica. He spent the first half of his 30-day sentence in a bunk, getting 12-hour releases on weekdays. During his first day in stir he read The Da Vinci Code.) "Mentally it's a little bit better this year because that stuff is over," says Khabibulin, 39, who had a losing streak of 14 games with the Oilers last season.
The nobody-knows-anything lunacy hardly stopped with Khabibulin. Elliott, a 3.34 goals-against-average whipping boy in Ottawa and Colorado in 2010--11, has taken a share of the net away from Jaroslav Halak, whom St. Louis acquired and signed to a four-year, $15 million contract after the goalie dragged Montreal to the '10 semifinals. Halak, who has elevated his play beyond the approximate level of a sieve after a dreadful first month, still has allowed about half a goal more per game than Elliott (2.17 to 1.68), who is working for $600,000 this year.
"We don't give up a lot of shots, and we're pretty good defensively," Blues G.M. Doug Armstrong says. "Elliott's facing less of a barrage than last year, and he's stopping the ones coming at him.... But there's no question goal's the toughest position to get a handle on. It starts with the draft. With a defenseman or forward, if he doesn't ultimately meet 80 percent of expectations, he can still do other things on the team. If a goalie doesn't meet expectations, he goes from the ice to the bench. You're either right or wrong."
Or lucky. When the Predators were considering Rinne in 2004, three years after his first year of draft eligibility, assistant G.M. Ray Shero flew to Finland to scout the goalie, who was then backing up future Wild goalie Niklas B√§ckstr√∂m for Karpat Oulu. Shero, now the Penguins' G.M., never saw Rinne make a save other than in warmups. On the recommendation of scout Janne Kek√§l√§inen, Nashville picked Rinne in the eighth round, 258th overall. Kek√§l√§inen was more hopeful than confident, having seen him play only twice—and the second time Rinne was pulled after allowing five goals in two periods.
Alexander Ovechkin swerves inside the Predators' defense early in the third period of a scoreless game, freeing himself for a 25-foot snap shot from the edge of the left face-off circle. With the puck and maybe the game on his stick, the Capitals' winger, with time to pick a spot, violates the third rule of sport: Rule 1: Do not pitch to Albert Pujols with an open base; Rule 2: Do not try to fathom Tim Tebow's mojo; and Rule 3: Do not test Pekka Rinne's glove. Ovechkin's snapper disappears into Rinne's oversized mitt.
"The only [athlete] with a better glove," Nashville assistant G.M. Paul Fenton says, "was Brooks Robinson."
Rinne's white Reebok trapper is a repository of broken dreams. His glove saves are pure, untainted by any Patrick Roy posing for the cameras. They are models of efficiency, even if an overreliance on his glove implies an abiding, and maybe excessive, pride.
Rinne instinctually tries to catch everything. He often scoops pucks like grounders instead of knocking them to the corner with his stick and reaches across his body for a glove save when he could simply fend off the puck with his blocker. Predators goalie coach Mitch Korn shrugs. "When someone can do something really, really special," he asks, "why would you try to coach him out of it?"
Korn tracks goalie touches, and he says the Predators retain possession 88% of the time when Rinne handles the puck. Although Korn concedes there are no objective standards for his homemade stat, he adds, "If a forward or defenseman kept possession 88 percent of the time, he'd be a superstar." When Rinne flew across the crease to foil the Canucks' Kevin Bieksa in overtime of the second game of their playoff series last spring, which Nashville would ultimately win 2--1, coach Barry Trotz suggested NFL Films set the save to music.
"So we're trading chances in the third with the Capitals last night, and I'm thinking with all the scorers over there, one puck is bound to get past him," Trotz says the day after Rinne's stoning of Ovechkin. "We're a little limited in the offensive part"—no Predator had more than 50 points last season and the team currently ranks 14th in goals per game—"but Peks is the Big Eraser. He cleans up our mistakes, allows us to play with added risk."
Trotz's foreboding about Washington turns out to be correct. Troy Brouwer beats his goalie stick side late in the period with a 20-footer from the slot, a shot that goes through Predators center Mike Fisher's legs and ticks under the crossbar. But Rinne foils 39 others, a panoply of puck-stopping that includes saves on tips, wicked one-timers and a Jason Chimera breakaway. Rinne can make all the plays even if he has plateaued since that 3--1 win. He has a pedestrian .911 save percentage in 24 subsequent games.
Rinne, like Robinson, also was a baseball player. Of sorts. He played pes√§pallo, Finnish baseball, the caffeinated cousin of the Orioles' third baseman's game. Pes√§pallo helped develop Rinne's hand-eye coordination, which he retained even when a teenage growth spurt temporarily turned him into first-team all-klutz. He now stands 6'5", an inch shorter than Lindback. Rinne is matchstick thin and Arctic Circle pale, a wraith out of his goalie equipment. "I saw pictures of myself in the Vancouver series," Rinne says. "I looked like a skeleton." He struggles to keep more than 200 pounds on his frame. Still, his bony shoulders will be expected to carry Nashville for the next decade.
In a world in which nobody knows anything, Rinne, currently rated 14th, with a .920 save percentage, could be a genuine Harry Neale 75 percenter as he backstops a franchise whose ambitions have grown with his. Hockey's Next Tall Thing, and perhaps big thing, once aspired to little more than a comfortable career in the Finnish Elite League. Now he hopes to replicate the Bieksa save, only in an even more critical game—say a Stanley Cup final.
"After we've done some great things in Nashville, maybe I'll look back and see just how far I've come," he says. "But right now I'll just roll with it." Like an Ovechkin snapper, life, Rinne says, "can happen pretty fast." Just like the NHL's spinning goalie wheel of fortune.
AT MIDSEASON OF 2011--12 THE ONLY SCIENCE THAT GOALTENDING RESEMBLES IS THE SORT PRACTICED BY DR. FRANKENSTEIN.
RINNE'S WHITE REEBOK TRAPPER IS A REPOSITORY OF BROKEN DREAMS. HIS GLOVE SAVES ARE MODELS OF EFFICIENCY.
Photograph by DAVID E. KLUTHO
SPLIT SCREEN Though he's known for his exceptional glovework, the 6'5" Rinne can make all the saves, which is a major reason the Predators recently made him the highest-paid player in franchise history.
JEFF ROBERSON/AP (ELLIOTT)
ROLE REVERSAL While the spacey Bryzgalov (30, above) has wilted under the pressure in Philadelphia after signing a nine-year, $51 million free-agent deal, unheralded journeyman Elliott (top) has thrived in St. Louis for a fraction of the cost.
ERIC HARTLINE/US PRESSWIRE (BRYZGALOV)
[See caption above]
CAGEY VETERAN After a poor season and an off-season prison sentence for "extreme DUI," former Cup-winner Khabibulin returned to Edmonton, where he seems to have rediscovered his game.