Sunday, December 4, 2011

Pekka Rinne Comparables

Pekka Rinne's 7-year, $49 million extension from the Nashville Predators has been one of the biggest goaltending stories of this season. Before coming to terms on that huge deal, which was announced on his 29th birthday, Rinne had a total of just 188 NHL games played in his young career through the age of 28. There's no denying that Rinne had a great season last year and has been playing well for the most part in 2011-12, but that is still not a huge sample size to make a seven year bet on a goalie's future, particularly with the increased downside risk associated with a big money guaranteed contract in a capped league.

To help project how Rinne might be expected to perform through the entirety of that contract, I looked for other goalies since 1990 with a similar amount of NHL experience at the same age (150-200 games played through their age 28 or age 29 season), and selected only goalies who were starters for the last two or three of those seasons (i.e. goalies who had already peaked and had already become backups or washed out of the league were not included). To adjust for different scoring contexts, I also ran the goals over average numbers (calculated by subtracting league save percentage from each goalie's save percentage and multiplying by the number of shots). This was the career progression of those goalies by age:

25: 346 GP, .906, 30.2 GOA
26: 484 GP, .903, -18.3 GOA
27: 615 GP, .911, 74.3 GOA
28: 579 GP, .909, 40.2 GOA
29: 610 GP, .909, 53.2 GOA
30: 555 GP, .908, 28.6 GOA
31: 474 GP, .905, -20.6 GOA
32: 379 GP, .912, 39.0 GOA
33: 375 GP, .908, -9.3 GOA
34: 298 GP, .905, -35.6 GOA
35: 88 GP, .897, -21.8 GOA
36: 74 GP, .904, 0.1 GOA

Part of the reason for the steep decline in games played is that some of these goalies are still active and have not yet reached their age 36 season. However, the save percentage numbers show how the performance declined in the aggregate, especially from the age of 33 and onwards.

Of the goalies in the sample, four of them were particularly comparable to Rinne in that they had well above average save percentage performance in the three seasons prior to the cutoff. Those four goalies were Marty Turco, Miikka Kiprusoff, Guy Hebert, and Mike Dunham. Here are the same numbers for that quartet:

25: 100 GP, .916, 25.6 GOA
26: 104 GP, .901,-8.4 GOA
27: 108 GP, .918, 76.6 GOA
28: 84 GP, .913, 32.7 GOA
29: 87 GP, .915, 67.1 GOA
30: 120 GP, .913, 63.4 GOA
31: 124 GP, .904, -25.4 GOA
32: 96 GP, .912, 19.2 GOA
33: 132 GP, .908, 3.0 GOA
34: 136 GP, .904, -28.8 GOA
35: 35 GP, .897, -12.5 GOA

Through the age of 30, the four were elite at stopping the puck, worth an average of 2-3 wins each per season compared to an average goaltender. Once they got on the wrong side of 30, however, things went south pretty quickly. From age 31 to 35, they had a combined save percentage of .906, which was a whopping 44.5 goals below league average. Miikka Kiprusoff is still hanging around in Calgary, making $5.8 million per season and seemingly skating by without taking any blame for his declining performance, but the teams employing the other three goalies are no doubt very grateful that they didn't sign any of those goalies to long-term contracts.

That is why the Predators are taking on quite a bit of risk in signing Rinne to a seven year deal. Rinne may be an elite goalie today, but that doesn't guarantee that he will be one at age 32 or 35. Turco and Kiprusoff were once elite as well, both having led the league in save percentage and having been voted a postseason All-Star, and yet that didn't stop them from ending up ranked last and third-last respectively on the list of post-lockout save percentages for goalies with at least 200 games played.

Very few goalies are great throughout their careers. Those that are consistently elite typically break in early, usually taking on significant NHL playing time by the age of 22 or 23. Then again, that is not a hard and fast rule, as sometimes there are late bloomers like Tim Thomas who like Rinne came from relative nowhere to put together a pretty good initial three year run as an NHL starter after the lockout at the age of 31-33 (.914 save percentage). Then, instead of seeing his play decline like many others, Thomas only got better from there, winning the Vezina in two of the next three seasons.

Being from Europe and having less exposure to North American scouts may have contributed to Rinne waiting until his mid-twenties before winning a starting job. Rinne is not the first European netminder in a similar situation; Jonas Hiller had exactly the same number of games played through his age 28 season as Rinne. Hiller has been a quality netminder so far, but it remains to be seen how well he can sustain that level. He has also struggled in the early going this year after an extended absence due to vertigo, which has to be somewhat of a concern. Then again, even in a worst case scenario, Hiller has three years left on his contract at $4.5 million, meaning that Anaheim would have much less of a problem than Nashville if their starting goalie is unable to play up to his usual level.

Looking back six years to 2005-06, only 11 out of 30 starting goaltenders still hold down a #1 role today (and that's counting Brodeur, Khabibulin and Roloson as starters, all of whom may or may not still be in that position at season's end depending on how well they are able to stem the tide of old age). Just six of those 11 are still with the same team (Brodeur, Kiprusoff, Lundqvist, Fleury, Miller, Thomas). Competition for NHL starting jobs is fierce, and the odds are generally against a goalie holding his position for an extended period of time.

In the salary cap era, flexibility is important, and tying up a lot of money in a non-performing asset can be crippling to a team's chances of success. The evidence suggests that paying a goaltender $49 million for 7 years, particularly when that goalie wasn't an NHL starter until the age of 26, is generally not a good bet. Driving Play had it right when they concluded that Rinne would essentially have to surpass all historical comparables to outperform his contract. It is possible that Rinne stays healthy, happy and productive in Nashville, but there are simply so many things that can go wrong that the Predators will probably end up regretting their decision.


Anonymous said...

Why didn't they offer this contract to Dan Ellis?

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

By playing well in more than one season, Rinne has made it pretty obvious that he is better than Dan Ellis.

Anonymous said...

He had a great rookie year and an outstanding '08 playoffs even if it was just one round. I'm honestly surprised Dan Ellis didn't keep his performance up. To me, it seems more likely that something has caused his ability to go down than that he just got lucky for a spell. Do you think maybe he is one of those minders that suffered a performance-limiting injury that the team hushed up about?

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

It's possible that Ellis had some sort of injury, we never have perfect information, but I'd say that it is just more likely that his real talent level is closer to the .903 he put up on his last 3000 shots than the .926 in the '07/08 season and playoffs. Lots of goalies have had one good year that they never duplicated, and in most cases they probably just got fortunate or peaked in that one season. said...

thanks bunches for those Pekka Rinne comparables, I was looking for some comparables, but I could not find any, just on here on your blog!

Bradley R said...

Hi nicee reading your blog