Since the early 2000s, the Nashville Predators have been known for being solid on the blueline and in between the pipes. The work that former goaltending coach Mitch Korn did with goalies that other teams didn’t take a chance on was phenomenal. From starters such as Tomas Vokoun and Pekka Rinne, to back-ups like Dan Ellis and Chris Mason, one of the franchise’s strong points has always been goaltending. With goaltending prospects such as Marek Mazanec, Magnus Hellberg and Jusse Saros, the future is also bright for the organization.
Last offseason, the role of goalie coach was taken over by Ben Vanderklok. Before assuming the role of head goaltending coach, Vanderklok served as an assistant for the past five seasons under Mitch Korn as well as goalie coach of the Niagara Ice Dogs of the Ontario Hockey League.
Now, Vanderklok is directly working with one of the most elite goalies in the National Hockey League in Pekka Rinne. When you have an elite goaltender such as Rinne that already leads the league in wins, it comes down to working on the small, detailed work in order to continue play at the highest level.
“I really think that he’s processing the game well,” said Vanderklok on Rinne. “He’s tracking the puck, connecting the dots well. The big thing with him that we’ve spent a lot of time on was his post play and his depth. I’m trying to get him to play deeper in situations and on recoveries, second saves and bad angles. He’s playing much deeper and playing more inside the post.”
Vanderklok has been working to help Rinne change his game little by little so that he knows how to react to different situations even better.
“He’s transformed his post play to some extent,” said Vanderklok. “He’s playing some scenarios differently than what he had in the past in terms of where he’s positioning and starting from. In scramble scenarios, where he’s trying to get to location-wise as opposed to being more aggressive like he had been in the past. I think he’s doing a good job at recognizing that.”
Something that Vanderklok has been focused on is recoveries and how to react to each situation that is faced. It’s something they continue to break down after every game.
“We talk about stages of recoveries,” said Vanderklok. “We talk about normal situations where we can be there big and in the butterfly and let the play come to us and be a little bit tighter. Then we talk about desperate scenarios when your athleticism has to show and you have to be desperate and just do whatever it takes. He’s done a good job in recognizing when to be desperate, when to be controlled and tight, and when to be more passive and in control. He’s not putting himself in a vulnerable position. He’s doing it at the right times.”
It’s important for a coach and his players to have a good, working relationship. This season has proved to be successful so far as Rinne boasts a 2.00 Goals Against Average (GAA), good for third in the league, as well as a .929 Save Percentage, good for fourth. Teaching and adjusting are what has helped Rinne bounce back from last season.
“It’s been fun to work with Ben,” said Rinne. “It’s just the little things, like some tweaks here and there. While watching a lot of tape, he points some things out on it and then try to translate it to the ice and work it during practice. He’s been a big help, I like to work with him.”
Rinne’s recovery from last season, where he battled an E. Coli infection in his hip, all began with training and a solid performance at the World Championships.
“It started in the summer when he got himself on a proper training program to get back to the strength and conditioning that he needed to be at after such a lengthy injury,” said Vanderklok. “He went to the World Championships and had some success so I think mentally he came back knowing that he’s ready to tackle this and take on this challenge. He was obviously excited and eager to get going since it had been a while for him, so it was a fresh start for him to start the year.”
With Rinne playing so many games, it’s vital that the star goaltender be able to move on from games, whether a win or loss. Focusing on the game at hand is something that helps set him apart from others.
“He’s good about moving on the next day,” said Vanderklok on Rinne. “He doesn’t carry yesterday into today, from a positive or negative standpoint. He doesn’t hang off of real good games, it’s just a new day and he gets back to work. Nothing snowballs out of control.”
The ability to move on also coincides with how teachable Rinne has been. Especially when Rinne has started back-to-back games, sometimes he and Vanderklok cannot take to the ice to work on adjustments. Rinne is able to implement changes instantly, even without hitting the ice.
“Pekka is at an elite level where we can say in the next game he has to do or tweak this and next it’s right there,” said Vanderklok. “Some guys, it takes a long time. Pekka has that unique ability to change literally after a conversation, and it’s there for us. It boils down to him putting in the hard work and competing on a daily basis. He’s a true pro.”
While much of the focus is on Rinne, sometimes the more difficult part is working with the back-up goaltender, especially when he rarely plays. Vanderklok sees the time he’s able to spend with Carter Hutton quite differently.
“We try to approach it in a sense that with Pekka playing the bulk of the games, we have extra time to work and prepare for the one game that Carter plays,” said Vanderklok. “Instead of looking at it like he’s gone two or three weeks without playing and he might lose his edge, I approach it that we have 15, 18, 21 days to really master what we need to master and go out and put our best foot forward. We try approach it that way and he’s responded pretty well to that.”
It’s tough to forget last season when Rinne went down mid-season and Hutton started 34 games. This is why it’s just as important to work with him as it is Rinne.
“He’s a Pekka Rinne injury away from being there, so he has to be ready when, and if, that happens,” said Vanderklok. “So, we never really look at the long term and how many games you’re going to play or not play. Tomorrow, when you get here, let’s get to work and be better today than we were yesterday. When it’s your turn to get in there and win a hockey game, that’s what we want. That’s been our approach all year and he’s done a good job with that.”
For both goaltenders, it’s been all about improving their post play and how to approach it. Rinne and Hutton are built differently, so it creates a unique opportunity in coaching for situations.
“I think we just found some different areas, for both me and Pekka, we’ve done a lot of post play when the puck is below the goal line, like different ways to approach it,” said Hutton. “For me, I’m not as big as Pekka, so there are certain plays when he might stand on his feet, I can get low and take away bottom angles. We use like a ‘reverse VH’ it’s called where you kind lean in with your pad to seal the post. I’m just working on being controlled from there, being able to change your angle and go post-to-post and push out on a secondary chance.
Hutton knows his role and understands how important it is that he stay at the top of his game.
“It’s been a tough year not playing as often,” said Hutton.” Sometimes you’re playing games on back to backs where it’s not necessarily the best set up, but that’s part of the deal. Pekka is going to get the workload, I just have to continue to work hard and be ready to play and give ourselves a chance every night.”
With only starting four games this season, Hutton unfortunately has a record of 0-3-1. Sometimes that statistics don’t speak as highly as they should about a goaltender, but in the end, Vanderklok knows that it will work itself out.
“In Chicago, he played a heck of a game, losing in overtime,” said Vanderklok on Hutton. “Then he did a real good job against Winnipeg. He’s played some decent games for us and has maybe earned a better fate than he’s had in the win-loss column, but that will all take care of itself if he just comes to work every day and improves.”
As the season goes on, it’s clear that Vanderklok has made a positive impact on the organization already. Rinne is giving Vezina-like performances night in and night out. For Vanderklok, it’s been a positive experience that he’s continuing to soak in each day.
“Coming in here with a new staff and new people, everyone has just been great to work with right across the entire organization. In terms of the goalies, I’ve really enjoyed my time with them. They’ve been great to work with and very open to ideas and suggestions. The team has had some success and winning always helps everything. That part has been real good and it has been nothing but a positive experience and I think every I had hoped it would be.”
As we near the midway point of the 2014-15 season, the Predators are not only battling for the Central Division lead, but also the President’s Trophy. Neither are a feat this franchise has accomplished. Could this be the season to see both? If it is, Pekka Rinne will have played a major role in that accomplishment.
*Photo Credit: Kristen Jerkins