The Nashville Predators were one of the best teams in the league last year. They were 5th in the Western Conference in goals. They were Top-10 in both generating and suppressing shot attempts. They had a Top-10 power play. They boasted a deep, diverse blue line that was the envy of the league. They shored up their biggest weakness mid-season by trading for center Ryan Johansen to complement goal-scoring wingers in Filip Forsberg and James Neal.
Despite all that, in mid-January the Predators were out of the playoff picture with a mediocre 20-18-8 record.
Pekka Rinne, Nashville's 7-million-dollar goaltender, was holding them back. On January 19th, Rinne had a save percentage of just .902 and was coming off a two-month stretch where he gave his team virtually no chance to win. You may feel there's no concern because Rinne eventually pulled out of that tailspin as the Predators made it to the second round. You'd be wrong.
The first concern is that even when Rinne was good, he wasn't *that* good. Let's arbitrarily drop his two worst months. When you do that, his save percentage jumps from .908 on the season to .915 (including playoffs), which would've been good for 26th place among goalies who had 2000+ minutes. Even at his best, Rinne was merely not a liability, rather than the franchise cornerstone his salary indicates.
A more long-term concern is Rinne's age. Rinne had actually done a decent job of playing at a consistent level, as you can see from his even-strength save percentages by year.
But at age 33, that dropped off by a significant margin. It could well be a blip on the radar, but it's not unreasonable to think that he may just be past the point where he can be an elite goalie in the league. And there aren't any easy answers as to why this decline in Rinne's results happened, either. There wasn't an injury to explain it away, so unless it was a complete fluke, every potential answer is bad.
An erosion in Rinne's reflexes and agility is probably the worst-case scenario, as he still has 4 years remaining on his contract in Nashville. And if the poor play was the result of fatigue from a 66-game workload, that's not good news for Nashville either. General manager David Poile hasn't made it a priority to bring in a backup goaltender who is proven to be able to handle 20-30 games. Without that solid backup option, the Predators are left with Marek Mazanek, a 25-year-old who has been mediocre in the AHL, and 21-year-old goalie prospect Juuse Saros. This ensures that Rinne will have to once again bear one of the heaviest workloads in the league, whether or not he's still capable of doing so.
The team in front of Rinne is even better than it was this time last year. They'll have a full season of Ryan Johansen. They traded Shea Weber to pick up the more dynamic P.K. Subban. Prospects Kevin Fiala and Vladislav Kamenev both had impressive age-19 seasons in the AHL, suggesting they could make the leap to the NHL sometime this season.
But as Nashville learned last year, even the best teams have difficulty overcoming a poor goaltender performance.
It's really this simple: If Rinne can get back to the form Nashville fans are accustomed to seeing from him, the Predators will be legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. If not? Nashville would still likely make the playoffs, but a declining Rinne would put a ceiling on what this very talented team can accomplish.
The pressure is on. There's no Plan B. The weight of Nashville rests on Rinne's shoulders.