— Eric Stromgren (@estromgren) October 9, 2014
Opening night brings a new opportunity for Predators’ star goalie Pekka Rinne.
When he takes the Bridgestone Arena ice Thursday against Ottawa, it is perhaps a symbolic final step in the process of moving on from a season where he missed all but 24 games due to a pair of hip operations.
“That was a tough year and obviously I don’t want to experience that again,” Rinne said. “This year I feel great. I’ve had a really good summer and I feel ready to go. That’s the main thing. I’m really excited to go.”
At training camp, Rinne continued to build off his performance from May’s World Championship at Belarus where he was named the most valuable player. He has shown durability early by playing in just over half of the six-game preseason schedule.
The Finnish goaltender is no different from the rest of the Predators looking to end the team’s two-year playoff appearance drought. There is a new coach in Peter Laviolette, some new teammates acquired in the offseason and some new systems.
“It feels like a fresh start for those of us who have been here a long time,” Rinne said.
Adding to that feeling is new goaltending coach Ben Vanderklok. He was appointed to the position by general manager David Poile in June after Mitch Korn and his 23 years of NHL experience left to join former Predators coach Barry Trotz in Washington.
“He’s so motivated,” Rinne said. “You can tell he’s really enjoying it and making sure he’s providing all the help we can possibly need. And I appreciate that.”
Vanderklok, a dual Canadian-Dutch citizen, is in his first NHL season at the position. He has worked with almost all of the goalies in the organization from Milwaukee (AHL) to Cincinnati (ECHL) as an assistant over the previous five seasons.
“He’s a really good guy,” Rinne said. “I feel like we’ve worked hard and done a lot of things, taking advantage of the time we have.”
Some of that time this preseason was spent in forging a relationship away from the rink. Vanderklok, Rinne and backup goalie Carter Hutton got together for dinner at Stoney River in Nashville’s West End last week. Hutton said the conversations ranged from their personal lives to the game.
Nearly every day during training camp, the three spent 30 minutes working on the ice ahead of team practice and followed up with video sessions after practice.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel or anything,” Vanderklok said. “We’re just taking all the proper steps to make sure we’re ready to rock opening night.”
The way Vanderklok works with Rinne and Hutton is in the details. Hutton said Vanderklok has helped him in improving puck-handling skills. With Rinne, Vanderklok has has worked on building a more calm and patient approach.
Sometimes that means means being in better position for second-save situations involving passes and rebounds.
“I’ve got my own thoughts and philosophies on some things and he’s (Rinne) been very open to try them and implement them,” Vanderklok said. “It’s been nothing but a great opportunity and relationship with him so far.”
Rinne said he wants to keep evolving his game and Vanderklok has been helpful in that area. But keeping what made him successful in the past — which includes a pair of Vezina Trophy-caliber seasons from 2010-12 — is also important to Rinne.
“He has the capabilities to be in that class,” Vanderklok said. “He has been before and there’s nothing worth shooting for that’s anything less than being one of those guys — if not the top dog. In the end, it’s about the day-to-day stuff.”
The quest to return to that form and help end a playoff drought begins against the Senators.
“I feel like we have a strong team,” Rinne said. “I like the changes we’ve made. Anytime you change personnel, you’re going to end up losing a couple good guys like (Patric) Hornqvist and (Nick) Spaling. But I really like the guys we’ve got. We got a lot of skill, a lot of firepower, a lot of offense. I’m really excited for that.”