24 October 2013

NHL: Pekka Rinne, Carter Hutton, and the Plight of the Backup Goalie

By Spaceman
Nashville, TN

If you were to put together a list of the most underappreciated positions in all of professional sports, the backup NHL goalie would sit at or near the top. He suits up in his bulky protective gear every night but spends most of his time sitting at the end of a bench, a baseball cap with his team’s logo atop his head instead of a state-of-the-art helmet emblazoned with thematic artwork. If he plays for a mediocre team he might play 30-35 games in the 82-game season. If he plays behind one of the growing numbers of modern workhorse goalies, there’s a chance he might play as few as 10. Even though backup goalies like Tomas Vokoun (Pittsburgh, 2011-12) and Ray Emery (Chicago, 2012-2013) have shown in recent seasons just how important the position can be, the backup remains a relatively anonymous figure in most cities. 

Goalie Carter Hutton joined the Nashville Predators in the 2013 off-season knowing he was more likely to play 10 games than 30. His one game of NHL experience, a start last season for the Chicago Blackhawks where he gave up three goals in a loss, was a big part of that. The bigger part was the fact that the starter’s spot is the property of a large Finnish gentleman named Pekka Rinne. A two-time Vezina Trophy finalist, the 6’5” Rinne has never played fewer than 52 games in a full NHL season; in 2011-12 he appeared in 73 of the team’s 82 games, and in the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season he played 43 of 48. With a lifetime 2.36 GAA and .919 save percentage, and five years left on a seven-year contract worth $49 million, the only thing that could oust Pekka Rinne from the net and give Carter Hutton a chance for more than the occasional start would be some sort of injury - and less than a month into the new season, that’s exactly what has happened. 

Carter Hutton, Nashville's new starting goalie. (PHOTO: Scott Iskowitz/Getty Images)

As of today Hutton, who has exactly three games of NHL experience, is now the team’s de facto starter. Rinne has developed a bacterial infection in his hip, which he was surgically repaired over the summer, and is expected to miss four weeks while he heals up. In one sense this is a highly unusual development in Nashville, where only one young goalie as inexperienced as Hutton has ever been broken in as a starter over the last decade. That was Rinne himself, who had just three games of NHL experience back in 2008-09. But in another sense this is something that has happened here before. Backup goalie Chris Mason had to take over the starting duties late in the 2005-06 season when the aforementioned Tomas Vokoun was sidelined with a blood-clotting condition much like the one that currently has him out fox six months in Pittsburgh; Mason then regained those starting duties in the first half of the 2006-07 season after Vokoun had to have pins put into his thumb.

Hutton’s three games of experience could be troubling, but two of them have come this season and he was excellent in both. His first appearance, in relief of Rinne back on October 3rd, saw him make 21 saves on 22 shots in 50:15. In the second, a start just four days ago in Winnipeg, he stopped 38 of 39 shots from the explosive Jets offense en route to his first NHL win. Toss in the fact that he has a pretty good defense in front of him, led by Shea Weber and Seth Jones, and things start to look a little better. The cherry on top is that he’s been working since training camp with Nashville goalie coach Mitch Korn, who has guided the development of standout netminders like Rinne, Vokoun, and Dominik Hasek during his time in the NHL.

Carter Hutton looked great earlier this week in his second career NHL start.

There's no more anonymity for Hutton now. He’s being thrown directly into the fire: the Predators’ schedule over the four weeks Rinne is expected to miss would be a tough one even for their normal starter, with games against St. Louis (5-1-1), Phoenix (6-2-2), Colorado (8-1-0), Pittsburgh (7-2-0), and Chicago (6-1-2). There are also two games against new Central Division rival Winnipeg (4-5-1), who Hutton beat last Sunday for his first win - and the first one is tonight. 

SO HOW ARE THE PREDS DOING ANYWAY?

The Nashville Predators have actually been playing pretty well since my last post. They went 2-1-1 this past week, improving their overall record to 5-4-1 after starting the season 0-2-0. They started at home on the 17th, playing the Los Angeles Kings to a tie through 65 minutes before losing 2-1 in a wild shootout. On the 19th they went into Bell Center in Montreal and played the same style of gritty defensive game but emerged with a 2-1 win in regulation. The 20th saw Carter Hutton get his 3-1 win over Winnipeg, but on the 22nd the Preds were shut out for the first time this season, falling 2-0 to Minnesota as Rinne was outdone by Josh Harding.

THE GOOD: The defense, guided by new assistant coach Phil Housley, has been getting sharper with each game. Seth Jones got the game-winner in Montreal with 1:27 left, adding to the earlier goal scored by captain Shea Weber. Young forwards Colin Wilson (1g-4a) and Craig Smith (1g-5a), whose continued development is key to the team's offensive plans, have been some of the most effective Nashville players on the ice lately.

THE BAD: Pekka’s out for four weeks. Assistant captain Mike Fisher, who started the season with five points in seven games, has missed the last three games listed day-to-day with a lower-body injury. Roman Josi remains sidelined with a concussion. Off-season signing Viktor Stalberg has yet to register a point in six games since returning from a shoulder injury.

THE OTHER: Fleet free-agent signing Matt Cullen has shown signs of life, flanked by the equally speedy winger combo of Smith and Gabriel Bourque, but still has just four points in 10 games. Scoring by committee continues to be the standard operating procedure in Nashville: Patric Hornqvist leads the team with three goals, followed by five players (Cullen, Fisher, Eric Nystrom, Weber, Jones) with two markers apiece. Pekka Rinne had given up just three goals on 87 shots in his last 184:21 before being sidelined. The team is 0-1-0 this season when I'm in attendance; hopefully they'll improve on that when I see them play the Jets tonight.

No comments: