Allow me to read a passage from Michael Lewis’ 2003 bestseller Moneyball, page 125, in the chapter The Science of Winning an Unfair Game, as interpreted to the situation the Nashville Predators hypothetically faced in June of 2012 after losing in a second round series to the favoured Chicago Blackhawks:
Pekka Rinne was a backup in Kärpät when David Poile drafted him in the 8th round of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. He only came into the starter’s role after a long development in the minors and sharing time with Predators goalie Dan Ellis. Ellis was traded to Montreal for Sergei Kostitsyn, a player who wound up leading the team in scoring in 2010. Ellis himself was signed as a bargain bin free agent in 2007. Tomas Vokoun, the Predators first star goalie was traded to Florida the offseason of 2007 for the draft picks required to pick Colin Wilson and Nick Spaling.
The central insight that led Poile both to turn minor league goalies into successful NHL goalies and refuse to pay them the many millions a year they demanded once they became free agents was that it was more efficient to create a goalie than to buy one. Established starting goalies were systematically overpriced, in large part because of the statistic by which goalies were judged in the marketplace: “wins.” The very word made the guy who achieved them sound vitally important.
The goalie’s statistic did not hold the power of language. It was just a number. You could take an above average goalie and drop him into the starter’s job in Nashville, let him accumulate a gaudy number of wins, and then sell him off. You could, in essence, buy a stock, pump it up with false publicity, and sell it off for more than you’d paid for it. David Poile had already done it twice.
Moneyball was essentially the story of how the Oakland Athletics replaced stars Jason Isringhausen, Jason Giambi, and Johnny Damon and still made the playoffs. The prevailing narrative for the last year or so is that the Nashville Predators’s situation has closely mirrored that of the Oakland A’s. On a tight budget in a small market, the Predators have made the playoffs year after year, defying logic and conventional premises.
Vokoun won 27 games in 43 tries in 2007, the year before he was traded. Dan Ellis won 15 in 29 with a disproportionate save percentage of .909 that season. The return that Poile got for Ellis, Kostitsyn, was all part of Nashville’s philosophy of giving undervalued forwards big-line minutes they wouldn’t see with other clubs. Star forwards in Nashville are at a premium; Martin Erat, Patric Hornqvist, Mike Fisher and Sergei Kostitsyn and they’ve been led in goals post-lockout by some strange characters—JP. Dumont, Jason Arnott, Steve Sullivan—and they continue to lose those players yet continue to find enough goals to win games.
I really liked the way that Nashville grasped this sort of stuff. The Predators learned (probably the hard way after the Peter Forsberg flop in 2007 and Alexander Radulov’s defection) that your best players don’t have to be star players. Production is what counts, and having players who will accept the system that coach Barry Trotz employed will allow the players in key spots of the lineup to produce, whomever they are.
When the Predators aren’t looking for spare parts, other players are carefully worked through the system. Colin Wilson and Craig Smith have become full-time NHLers, while Martin Erat and David Legwand have been around for a while in Nashville and quietly accumulate strong point totals. Nashville’s ability to not only develop forwards, but good defensemen, has been a major factor into why the team has seen so much regular season success: Shea Weber and Ryan Suter were easily able to fill the gap when Dan Hamhuis left to Vancouver last season when Nashville determined they could no longer afford him.
But the contract extension to Rinne on Thursday afternoon has shaken this notion of Nashville. Anders Lindback, the minor league goalie assumed to being groomed to replace Rinne in the spirit of all the Predators goalies since Vokoun, was foresaken as the Predators instead locked up Rinne, the goalie, the one renewable asset that has been constant to the Predators, for 7 years at $7M. Weber and Suter, the only defensemen Nashville have left who can win possession battles in top situations against top competition, may be split up in effort to accommodate Rinne’s bloated contract demands.
There’s certainly a risk to letting Lindback play: He has only ever been an NHL backup and doesn’t have the experience requisite in the American Hockey League as Vokoun, Ellis and Rinne did when they stepped into the crease in Nashville. He has played well in pro leagues, mind you, he has just 93 games of experience of NHL, AHL and top-flight Swedish league hockey.
However, Rinne is no slam-dunk either. As Jonathan Willis points out over at the Nations that the signing “shows that one of the league’s most financially cautious clubs hasn’t learned the lessons of the last few seasons, where goaltending performance has fluctuated wildly and competent goaltenders can be had for close to nothing on the free agent market.”
Willis discusses the short-term risks of trusting Rinne’s save percentage from last season, but it’s also a long-term gamble. The Predators will have Rinne now until he’s 37. Only 28 times has a goalie over 30 turned in a save percentage of at least .920 while playing 50 games, and only four goalies; Vokoun, Tim Thomas, Patrick Roy and Dominik Hasek, ever repeated the feat.
If the odds don’t favour Lindback, they in no way favour Rinne either. The Predators don’t need to go to the free agent market for a goalie, as if Lindback doesn’t work out, the team has options in Milwaukee Admirals starter Jeremy Smith, who posted a .921 save percentage last season and is .938 through six games this campaign. The Predators also have blue-chipper 21-year old Chet Pickard who had a very strong career in Tri-City of the WHL. They also selected Magnus Hellberg, a 6’5″ goalie from Sweden with the 38th pick this past draft, who has a .949 save percentage in 14 games with Frolunda of the Swedish Elite League.
Whereas, if we can assume that Nashville only has the money to sign two of the “big three” free agents, there is significantly less defensive depth in the system for Nashville than goaltenders. No Predator defenseman is close to being as effective in as tough minutes as Weber and Suter are, and the system isn’t as deep as it once was. Jon Blum could potentially one day be groomed for a takeover, but Ryan Ellis and Roman Josi have both hit snags in their development. Ellis’s size means that he in no way will be ever as good in his defensive end than Shea Weber can be, despite his tuned offensive instincts.
Now then, the long bitter negotiations in the summer that ended in an expensive arbitration for Weber could mean that he’s the odd-man out and David Poile knows this. But in the race to replace Rinne, Suter or Weber, it looks like the Predators bet on the wrong horse.
Here’s how that section in Moneyball ends for the Predators and Pekka Rinne, although now this ranks up there with fan fiction rather than reality:
Pekka Rinne’s departure wasn’t a loss to the Nashville Predators but a happy consequence of a machine known as “Selling the Goalie”. In return for trading Rinne to the Columbus Blue Jackets before free agency began, the Preds had received two new assets: the Blue Jackets’ second-round draft pick along with Derrick Brassard. The former they had used to select Damon Severson, a young—and growing, defenseman from the Kelowna Rockets the Predators judged to have as bright a future as Ryan Suter. The latter was a contract that Columbus was just looking to rid themselves of, but Brassard found himself skating on Nashville’s second line a year later, potting 20 goals for the first time in his career.
Finding goalies who could become potential starters wasn’t all that difficult. To fill the hole that David had traded to Columbus, the Predators would go with Rinne’s backup Anders Lindback after having re-signed him to a three-year deal at a price far cheaper than what the Blue Jackets ended up paying to lock down Rinne for the next seven years.