Pekka Rinne only played three NHL games during Chris Mason’s previous tenure with the Nashville Predators. That was enough for Mason to be convinced Rinne would eventually be special. And he was right.
Before Rinne was nominated twice for the Vezina Trophy, before he became a human highlight-reel in net, before he evolved into one of the world’s top netminding talents, Mason sensed a bright future for the Finn.
“I definitely saw great potential in him when he first came over here from Finland … I saw greatness in him,” said Mason, who was traded to St. Louis in 2008 to open up playing time for Rinne.
“You could just tell – with his athleticism and his size; the way he gets around the net and covers it up when he’s moving; the way he’s able to scramble when caught out of position; his ability to contort his body in a position to stop pucks is just unbelievable. Everyone uses the term ‘never out of a save’, and he never is. He finds a way to make an impossible save possible.”
Since taking Mason’s spot prior to the 2008-09 season, Rinne has seen his role go from co-starter to full-time starter to invaluable workhorse. His wins have been on a steady incline over the last four seasons, while his peripheral stats (goals-against average and save percentage) have been among the league’s best since the start of the 2010-11 campaign.
Rinne is also one of two goalies since the lockout to be nominated for the Vezina in back-to-back seasons (the other being future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur).
“You see a lot of guys with talent, but he’s got a work ethic that is second to none,” Mason said of Rinne. “It’s really cool to see the development he has made and turn himself into a world-class goalie like he has.”
Even though they didn’t share the Predators’ net much at all in the three years they were previously in the organization together – Rinne, a 2004 draft pick, spent three training camps with Mason (2005-2007) – Rinne and Mason developed a friendship that was kept in the years Mason was in St. Louis, Atlanta and Winnipeg.
“We spent quite a bit of time together,” Mason said. “Us goalies are always talking about the same things and you end up spending a lot of time [together], especially when a guy is as likable as he is. We even stayed in touch [in recent years] when we would play each other.”
Rinne mentioned Mason’s work ethic rubbed off on him, along with the veteran’s ability to stay positive during rough patches.
“I don’t think you could ask for a better partner,” said Rinne, who raved about Mason’s off-ice leadership. “He is such a supporting guy and a good example.”
In the years Mason wasn’t with the Predators, Rinne shared the crease with goalies that wanted more playing time and suffered when they weren’t getting enough.
Though the coaching staff hopes Mason can lighten Rinne’s workload, the 36-year-old consummate pro knows he won’t be getting the 30-40 starts (in a non-lockout season) he received in his previous stint with the Predators, and he’s fine with that.
“I know my job is to be ready when I have an opportunity to play and give breaks to Peks throughout the season,” said Mason, who was signed to a one-year deal in July. “Teams that can give their goalies rest here and there, it just does so much with all the travel and games every second or third night. If he were to have, say, five extra games of rest it would make a huge difference come playoff time.”
Recent history shows that more rest for starting goaltenders can pay off. The last eight Stanley Cup-winning goaltenders have averaged 49.4 regular season starts the year they won. Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist had more rest in 2011-12 than he had the previous six years, and it helped him put up career numbers and win the Vezina. Boston’s Tim Thomas only had 55 starts in his banner 2010-11 season, when he claimed the Vezina, Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe.
Time will tell whether Mason and the Predators will give Rinne additional nights off. First, there needs to be a season. But one thing is for sure: the Predators’ tandem between the pipes is happy to be back together.
“Not only is he is the best goalie in the NHL, he’s just a great person,” Mason said of Rinne. “I really look forward to playing with him.”