Pick two of three to keep.

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.

Pekka Rinne, essentially

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.

Seriously, if you search on Getty for Shea Weber, you find about 20 pictures of him in this pose, in about 20 different jerseys.

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.

#TeamAnders

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.

Comments (15)

  1. Very interesting analysis of the Rinne deal. I was shocked at the contract numbers because it’s a bigger cap hit than that of Henrik Lundqvist, who signed a 6-Year $6.9M/year deal with the Rangers in 2008. He’ll be 32 at the end of his contract.

    If Nashville is unable to sign Weber and/or Suter there will be a lot of pressure on Rinne to carry this team for the next half-decade.

  2. Tom Cigarran and David Poile both insist that the money is there for all three guys for long-term contracts in this range. In fact, they are calling out you media guys who are doing all the assuming on this. No one can predict the future, and that might all be bluffing, but I feel pretty safe in assuming that Cigarran knows more about the Preds’ bank account than I do.

    There are optics involved in this signing that might not show up to people who haven’t lived through the off-season from hell in Nashville. The team sent a message by signing Rinne this way, and that message probably doesn’t resonate outside of Music City. That’s okay. To quote the Captain, “It is what it is.” But if they do manage to sign all three, is Backhand Shelf going to print an article saying they were wrong?

    • I think the point that Cam is trying to make is that “IF” the Predators could only afford two of their three big UFA players this off-season then Rinne should have been the player let go in favor of Weber and Suter.

      If Nashville finds the money to sign all three of them to multi-million dollar long-term contracts that would be great. This season Rinne has a cap hit of $3.4M and Suter’s is $3.5M. Rinne’s new deal is literally the same amount of money they currently pay both Rinne and Suter together, plus another $100,000 on top. Assuming Suter is worth a little bit less than Weber, and that Weber will still be making approx $7M a season, then Nashville needs to find approx $6M to pay Suter with. Possibly more because if this offseason was any indication, teams will be willing to overpay for a defenseman of Suter’s talents.

      That’s not to mention the long list of non-Suter RFA’s that Nashville has to deal with. Kostitsyn, Wilson, Goeffrion and Blum could all end up getting pay raises or heading to arbitration.

      • The “ifs” are pretty well buried in there, while the declaratives dominate. Cam thinks we “bet on the wrong horse.” Not “perhaps it will turn out this way,” not “if it turns out this way.” Just short and simple: bad contract because you have to choose two of the three. Same old story. I’m surprised the words “goalie factory” don’t appear.

        I’m well aware of the difficulties facing the team in terms of money. I’m sure Cigarran is. too. In fact, there are other players you don’t mention. But it is quite easy to post these editorials saying “Nashville can’t.” Lots and lots of people have posted editorials saying “Nashville can’t.” In my opinion, the guy who signs the checks is quotable in this situation, yet he’s not quoted here. No mention is made of the fact that the team _knows_ how much this is going to cost. Instead, the belief is that zero growth has occurred in Nashville and zero change is possible and, therefore, the team screwed up.

        So, IF Tom Cigarran is right, and IF David Poile can convince Weber and Suter to sign, will Cam say, “you know what, I was wrong about this one?” Most media outlets won’t do so.

        • I think you’ve missed part of the point, Clare. Cam’s not quoting Moneyball just because of the Predators’ budget. Nashville does have the cap space to keep all three if they’re willing to radically increase their self-imposed budget limitations. But do they want to? Even if Rinne is as good at the end of this contract as he is now, that’s $7 million they don’t have to invest in three or four other good players and solid contributors. They may have been better off only spending $2.1 million a year on Lindback and Pickard (who could be just as good in nets as Rinne), and investing the difference elsewhere. There are bargains to be had.

          • Are we going to get into a goalie evaluation discussion? Because I’ll need to block out some time if we are. Lindy ain’t ready to take over for Pekka (needs another year and 25+ starts to get even close) and Pickard’s four years away from the NHL. Smith and Atte Engren, who Cam forgot about (you should never forget about Atte,) are ahead of him in development and Hellberg might just leapfrog all of them.

            I didn’t miss the point. I caught the whole “never bet on a goalie” thing. My problem was the assumption that we _necessarily_ have to choose between the Big 3. If this team wants to be able to get beyond where they are now, they need to find a way not to have to choose.

    • If Nashville resigns all three, I will happily eat my words. I’m a big fan of the Predators organization.

      • Please put a hyphen in re-sign. I hate you. Oh, and terrific piece as usual. Love, Bourne.

      • Thank you. That’s all I wanted to hear. And props to you for stepping up where others wouldn’t.

  3. Couldn’t this approach be applied to any player though, regardless of position? Instead of selling the goalie, why not selling the defenseman, or selling the forward? I mean, in NSH case there are certain needs, but there seems to be a mindset that any goalie can be groomed to come in be as good as the string of goalies they’ve been lucky to have.

  4. I think the big thing to take away from Rinne’s 7 for 7 deal is Poile’s willing to shake the system up a bit. You’ve outlined it really well – “groom and sell”. I’ve always thought NSH was a decent, consistent team, one that could be relied on to win more than they lose, and not make a huge splash with signings or trades. But now….? Depending on their position come February, it’s totally feasible to see NSH become big deadline buyers or sellers. This could be their “all-or-nothing” year.

  5. Why is it assumed that goalies are a dime a dozen? Has any team gotten to the finals with a ‘dime’ goalie? don’t think so. Has any goalie taken on the task of saving the collective butts of his teammates two out of every three games? don’t think so. Rinne deserves every penny he is going to be paid and there is no doubt in anyone’s mind in Smashville that he will do his very best to earn it. We have new owners, new goals; It is NOT the same ole Preds. We are out to win the Stanley.

    • Since the lockout:

      Cam Ward, Dwayne Roloson, Ray Emery, Jimmy Howard, Antti Niemi, Michael Leighton are all goalies who were picked up for cheap or drafted and developed and weren’t on a big contract when they took their team to the finals.

  6. “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.”

    And of those four, two worked with goalie coach Mitch Korn, who just happens to still be in the Nashville organization. Coincidence? Maybe. Korn might be the most under-recognized goalie coaches in the league, but then again when has Nashville not had good goaltending…

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