With a .941 save percentage through the first three rounds, it is easy to see why Pekka Rinne has emerged as a favorite for the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Goaltenders with those type of gaudy numbers are easily identified and goaltenders only trail centers in the traditional voting results for MVP.
While Rinne has been good, what has been driving his performance is his environment. Goaltender is a tricky position to assess because of all the environmental factors and what drives save percentage. Small sample fluctuation can skew our perception. But in general, goaltenders talent level remains fairly static when they reach their prime and slowly tails off following it.
Rinne has a .917 career save percentage during the regular season, and, entering this postseason, carried a .912 playoff save percentage. This postseason looks like an outlier, but it is the result of a goaltender playing in an environment tailor-made to his ability.
If we look at the shot distribution, we see Rinne has been sheltered from slot-line passes. He’s faced only 12 during the playoffs and has benefitted from an above-average distribution of straight line shots.
This is a massive benefit for a goaltender who stands at 6-foot-5. Allowing a man of his size to set depth and angle creates an almost impossible environment for offensive success. When we see that the shots he faces are from the exterior, we begin to understand where these dominant numbers are coming from.
If we break down the location, we see that 33 of the high-danger shots he has faced have been from the wrap-around locations immediately to the side of the net. While the wrap area is a major focus of goaltenders post work, they are so strong in this area that these type of goals are an anomaly.
Where Rinne has been exposed is on rebounds, but even this area he has faced almost 60 percent from the front side, a much easier distribution than the backside rebounds which work very similar to a slot-line pass.
Based on the location and pre-shot movement metrics, Rinne’s .941 save percentage remains impressive. But if we plugged in an average goaltender based on average outcomes, he would be expected to produce a .933 save percentage in these playoffs.
The real story is what is occurring in front of Rinne. A paradigm shift is occurring on the backend where teams are finally recognizing that speed and skill on the backend are better than size and toughness. The Penguins won the Stanley Cup last season with a mobile backend lead by Kris Letang, who is the whipping boy for “irresponsible” defensemen.
The Ottawa Senators were a just an overtime goal away from the Stanley Cup Final this year and were anchored by Erik Karlsson, the best offensive defenseman in the league and another victim of the “irresponsible defensively” tag.
The Predators were reborn in the offseason with the acquisition of P.K. Subban, who has been a defensive beast in the playoffs.
Progressive management is looking for this mobility and the Predators have the archaic thinking of Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin to thank for one-third of their defensive unit. Both Subban and Yannick Weber were players who were deemed expendable in Montreal because of their defensive inadequacies. Yet in the playoffs, their speed and transition ability have proven invaluable in locking down the defensive end.
A player like Weber may be viewed as a defensive liability because of his size and skill, yet when he and Matt Irwin have been on the ice together at even strength, they have provided 90 percent clear-sigh shots for Rinne and have surrendered only one slot-line pass in 51 shots. Why? Mobility and skill.
We tend to think of defense as an entity to itself, but generating offense is a solid form of defense. When you aren’t in your zone, you are doing a good job of defending it. When the offense cannot enter your zone because of mobile defenders who can angle you towards the boards and take away time and space, you are preventing offensive opportunities. When you are able to clear the zone through skating ability or transition passing, you are limiting your defensive exposure.
Stay-at-home defenders are not as efficient because they are only strong in half of the game. Predators GM David Poile realized this, like the Penguins last season, and did a masterful job of populating his defense for this Stanley Cup run. Rinne has been good throughout the postseason, but the credit for his success should be given to the guys playing in front of him.