NASHVILLE – Pekka Rinne claimed to be surprised after being nominated for the Vezina Trophy for a second straight year.
Surprised? Really? After leading the NHL in wins (43) and saves (1,987) while posting a sparkling .923 save percentage and basically keeping the Nashville Predators afloat early in the season?
“I was surprised last year as well,” said Rinne, who was a runner-up to Tim Thomas for the 2010-11 Vezina. “There are so many great goalies and so many guys had great years. The first reaction, you're kind of like, ‘Woah, it's cool, it's awesome.' It's something that when you're growing up you can only dream up.”
Rinne's modesty is understandable when you consider his unlikely climb to stardom. He was drafted by the Predators in the eighth round (258th overall) in 2004.
“It's one of those great stories about scouting,” said Predators general manager David Poile. “He was a backup for Niklas Backstrom [for a team in the top Finnish league] and hardly got to play, but there was something about him that our scout Janne Kekalainen really liked and he said you got to come over and see this guy. But every time we sent someone over to watch him he never played so most of our scouting was done in the warm-ups.
“It's good to be good, but a little bit better to be lucky and we certainly were with Pekka.”
But the Predators had no idea he'd be this good.
“To be as good as he is now? One of the best in the National Hockey League? That's maybe a little bit of a stretch,” admits Poile. “But we knew he had all the tools, the work ethic, the athleticism.
“I really think it's one of the best development programs we've done with an individual player. He played three full years in the minors and then comes into the NHL not in a starting role, but more in a secondary role and played into the starter job. I think it was just perfect.”
Rinne acknowledges he needed the time with Milwaukee in the American Hockey League to get acclimated with his new surroundings.
“Back home I'm from a small city and it's totally different, everything is different, especially off the ice,” said Rinne. “Those are the biggest things where you have to adjust to the lifestyle and be able to pay the bills and do stuff like that. You know, for example, we don't use cheques back home. And, of course, when I came over I got the cheque book and I'm like, ‘What's going on here?' Stuff like that.
“I think the No. 1 thing is getting comfortable off the ice, after that everything comes easier.”
Rinne also had to work on his punctuality. He would sometimes arrive late for morning skates and other events.
“He's not a morning fellow,” said Predators defenceman Kevin Klein with a big smile. “He moves really slow off the ice, because he saves all his quickness for on the ice.”
“He likes to be fashionably late,” adds captain Shea Weber.
Rinne insists he has changed his tardy ways.
“Sometimes I'm a little sleepy,” he said with a laugh. “It takes a lot to get up. But that was in the minors when I got in trouble with that.”
During the 2008-09 season Rinne earned a spot with the Predators and has not left since. And this season was his finest one yet. The Predators started the campaign with a rather pedestrian 12-11-4 record, which could have been much worse.
“We don't even make the playoffs without Pekka,” said head coach Barry Trotz. “There's no chance we would have made the playoffs if he wasn't as good as he was. He was the best goalie in the league in at least the first 20 games.”
“I totally agree with that,” said Poile. “When we started the season we lost a lot of veteran players from the year before and had the youngest team in the National Hockey League and I don't think that, honestly, the belief was quite there. We really got outplayed in a lot of games. We got outshot in a lot of games and Pekka was the difference.”
Trotz argues that Rinne should be in the Hart Trophy race. In the end it was New York Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist who was nominated for league MVP alongside Steven Stamkos and Evgeni Malkin.
But there is no question how valuable Rinne is to the Predators.
“You want me to stand here all day?” Weber replied when asked what the most impressive thing about Rinne's season was. “I mean he's been great start to finish. Everybody here knows what to expect from him. He gives us a chance to win every night. He does everything well.”
And the one thing that players, Trotz and Poile always cite when asked about Rinne is his humble, easygoing nature. He hears all the compliments and does not let that change him. He's still that guy from a small town in Finland, who backed up Backstrom.
“A lot of great things have happened to me and I've been very fortunate,” said Rinne. “It's been a great journey so far and I hope it's far from over.”