Back in some of the earliest days of the Nashville Predators franchise, officials looked at a young man named Brian Finley as their goalie of the future. By the end of Finley's tenure, the same officials lightheartedly feared for his safety if he ever had kids. If Finley tried to play catch with his son, they joked, he'd end up with a broken nose.
A suspect glove hand—and more importantly, some significant groin injuries at a critical stage of his development—derailed the professional prospects of Finley, the second first-round draft pick in Predators' history (sixth overall, 1999). Ultimately he played just four NHL contests (two for Nashville) and allowed 13 goals on 87 shots.
Finley was not a great goalie. What he was, we now see, was an exception.
The Predators have been derided regularly by segments of the hockey world because—well, take your pick. They're in a small market. They're in a non-traditional market. They're unwilling (or unable) to take a significant gamble in the free agent or trade markets. Their owners are ill-equipped for the financial realities of the NHL. They typically look to defend first and score second. And so on.
But the one area where the Predators are beyond criticism is the development of goalies.
That's no small thing, either. Goalies arguably are the closest thing in the hockey world to the pro football quarterback. Rules are made to protect them. They typically get too much credit when a team wins, and too much blame when it loses.
"I do think it's a defining characteristic of our franchise," Predators general manager David Poile says. "It's an understatement to say that you can't win without them. We've always had players at that position who, almost every night, have given us a chance to win. I'm not sure how many places you can look and say the same thing."
It was the alphabet that made Mikhail Shtalenkov the first player chosen in the June 26, 1998, expansion draft. He never played for the Predators, but he was their pick from Anaheim—and he was a goalie.
Similarly, it was simple geography that led Mike Dunham to be in Buffalo that day for the expansion draft announcement. Another of Nashville's 26 selections, he was a native of nearby Binghamton who was at home that off-season. So he was on hand to don the jersey and pose for pictures—and he was a goalie.
Coincidence or not, the expansion process turned into sort of a mission statement about what could be expected from the team in the coming years. From that day forward, the goalie almost always has been their most important player.
Consider that following the first full week of the current NHL season, Nashville was the only team that had two netminders with goals-against averages of less than 2.00. Those two, Pekka Rinne and Dan Ellis, also were among the top eight in save percentage—a feat only Phoenix matched.
Not only that, but two others who developed with the Predators—Tomas Vokoun in Florida and Chris Mason in St. Louis—were considered the No. 1 starters for their respective teams.
"To some it might seem like a dilemma, trying to decide which one to play," Predators Coach Barry Trotz says. "I think it's like having something in your back pocket. You always have an option, something else you can go to."
Rinne represents a major step in this trend. He is the first goalie drafted by the Predators to make significant contributions on the NHL level.
As a rookie in 2008-09, he set the franchise record for shutouts in a season with seven. His 29 victories were second only to Vokoun, who twice won more than 30.
"I thought it was almost a perfect way to bring along a young prospect," Poile says of Rinne, who played three full minor league seasons before he jumped to the NHL.
Before Rinne, an eighth-round selection in 2004, Nashville's best work came with netminders cast aside by other teams.
Take Vokoun, who was a virtual throw-in by Montreal in the 1998 expansion draft. Ultimately, he set the standard for all Predators' goalies who followed. Mason was developed over two separate stints with the team, beginning in their inaugural campaign. Dunham spent his first few professional seasons with New Jersey stuck behind future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur.
Among the three of them, they accounted for 300 of Nashville's 364 all-time victories prior to this season. Combined, they had 42 NHL appearances in their pre-Nashville careers, 41 of them by Dunham.
Rinne and Ellis both are in the final years of their respective contracts. Thus it is almost certain a new face will be in the locker room—and behind the mask—in 2010-11.
"Obviously we will have some big decisions to make after this season on Ellis and Rinne, who both are going to be unrestricted free agents," Poile says. "Realistically, do we think we're going to bring both of them back? Probably not."
Given the Predators' history, though, the future of their goaltending seems like nothing to fear.
@Senor Sardonicus: So, Zombie, you finally discovered peyote. Mmm, mmm, mmm.
I agree that The Tennessean should have broader coverage; ie> coverage of other religions and…
@davidlongfellow: What are you implying? The killers explanation for the beheading makes perfect sense to…
Anything that eliminates predators of any stripe or spot is good.
Jakes is right in what he said. If Metro caught any citizen doing this sort…