By Jim Diamond
When Barry Trotz was the head coach of the Predators, one of his go-to phrases when talking about the team’s goaltending was that he was going to ride Pekka Rinne “like Seabiscuit.” Prior to each season Trotz and goaltending coach Mitch Korn had a plan for the number of games their team’s top netminder was going to play, but circumstances often dictated a change to that schedule.
Now under the direction of new head coach Peter Laviolette, the Predators begin their 2014-15 season Thursday night at home against the visiting Ottawa Senators. Following the team’s Tuesday afternoon practice at Bridgestone Arena, Laviolette said that there is no master plan in place as to how he will use his goaltenders in his first season at the helm in Nashville.
“I think it usually develops as the season goes on,” he said. “You can have a plan I think at the start of the year, but depending on where you are at in the standings and goalie being hot, I think it always changes a little bit.”
After the conclusion of the 2012-13 season, Rinne had surgery on his left hip. He worked hard to get ready for the start of last season and was between the pipes when the puck dropped for the team’s first game Oct. 3.
Fewer than three weeks later, Rinne fell ill and was hospitalized the morning after Nashville’s Oct. 22 at Minnesota. Rinne had developed a dangerous E. coli infection in that same left hip. The repair of and recovery from that infection kept Rinne out of the lineup until early March. The 6’5” Finn missed 51 games.
Now healthy, Rinne is looking forward to getting back to the form where his coach wants him in the game each night.
“Personally, I expect myself to play a lot of games and stay healthy,” Rinne said. “To me, I am just going to focus on starting the season well and keep it going after that. Obviously anytime I feel like I am on top of my game, I want to play every night.”
After a lockout shortened the 2012-13 season to just 48 games and the Winter Olympics compacted last season’s schedule, the 2014-15 season will have a feeling of normalcy to the players and coaches. Rinne wants to get back to the form that made him a two-time Vezina Trophy finalist in 2011 and 2012. In 2011, he finished fourth in the voting for the Hart Trophy, given to the league’s most valuable player.
“I’m excited about this year since for the first time in a couple of years, it is going to be a normal season, a normal schedule,” Rinne said. “It is not going to be so random as the last couple of years; the lockout year and the Olympic year.”
When Laviolette wants to give Rinne a rest, he will turn to Carter Hutton, who is entering his second full NHL season. Prior to last season, Hutton had one game of NHL action on his resume, and with being Rinne’s backup, he wasn’t expecting to see a lot of playing time last season. All of that changed with Rinne’s hip infection.
“Mitch and Barry kind of put a number on how many games I was going to play and what they expected and needed from me,” Hutton said. “Things changed with Pekks going down, obviously I was seeing a lot more action. It was kind of a whirlwind for my first NHL season, but I think it helped me develop. I learned a lot and learned different experiences at this level.”
After a strong start, Hutton hit a rough patch. He worked through that tough stretch and finished the season with 20 wins, including seven in his last nine decisions. That performance was good enough to earn him a new two-year, $1.45 million contract in the offseason.
“Coming into this year, just continue to be good when I am called upon, win my games,” Hutton said. “That’s what it’s about winning hockey games in this league. No matter who is going, me or Pekka, this team is going to give us a good chance to win.”
The Predators finished just three points out of eighth place in the Western Conference last season. With all of the changes made behind the bench and up front with the forwards, the team hopes to add some more scoring punch in 2014-15. Combine those changes with a healthy Rinne and a more experienced Hutton in goal, Nashville hopes to end their two-year playoff absence.