The bad news is they needed every inch after a crease collision forced 6-foot-5 starter Pekka Rinne to leave early. The good news is it’s hard to pick between Rinne and his even bigger backup, 6-foot-6 Swedish rookie Anders Lindback.
“If you came into the building and didn’t know which guy is Pekka Rinne, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference,” long-time Nashville goalie coach Mitch Korn told InGoal Magazine on the eve of the game against Anaheim.
Korn joked before the game about “starting the smaller guy” after Lindback beat out Mark Dekanich to win the backup job left empty when Dan Ellis was allowed to leave for Tampa Bay as a free agent. That gave the Predators an inch less than 13 feet of goalie tandem this season, widely believed to be a league record.
“I just wish the nets were six feet high and four feet wide,” laughed Korn.
They didn’t need that adjustment Saturday. With his parents in the stands after coming from Sweden to help him get settled, Lindback stopped all seven shots in his surprise debut after Rinne was forced to leave 2:30 into the third period of a 4-1 win over Anaheim. Dekanich has since been called up from Milwaukee as Rinne stayed off the practice ice Monday, but the move was deemed precautionary because the Predators don’t have to play again until Wednesday and Thursday (Update: Lindback won both starts, stopping 55 of 60 shots).
Either way, Rinne and Lindback should be the tandem most of the season, and the only things more impressive than the sheer size of Nashville’s duo are the similarities between the two. It’s a heady comparable given Rinne’s rise from eighth round pick in 2004, to top NHL stopper with a 32-16-5 record with a 2.53 goals-against average, 91.1 save percentage and seven shutouts last season.
“He plays a little lower than Pekka,” Korn said. “A little more hunched over, a deeper crouch, especially on rushes and plays like that. The thing I like about Lindback and Pekka is they are both hard droppers [down into the butterfly] and I think you pick up time doing that, whether one or two frames on video, and it can be the difference between a puck getting through and not getting through.”
Lindback also catches a lot of pucks like Rinne. Both are also late draft picks, with Rinne going in the eighth round in 2204 and Lindback chosen in the seventh in 2008. Two years later he has leaped past Chet Pickard, taken 18th overall the same year, and Jeremy Smith, who was a second-round pick the year before.
In doing so, Lindback becomes one of three massive Swedes making a strong early impression in their first taste of the NHL, including 6-foot-6 Calgary backup Henrik Karlsson, and 6-foot-5 Eddie Lack, who turned heads in the Canucks camp.
“What are they feeding these guys over there?” asked Korn with another laugh.
In a perfect world Korn would prefer Lindback follow Rinne’s path to the NHL, which included three seasons in the American Hockey League. The 22-year-old Lindback may not need that kind of seasoning after spending the last two seasons in the Swedish Elite League, and the year before that in the second division, but there are lots of big adjustments to make between the two leagues.
“Just to get up to speed with the puck handling, the traffic, rebound control, things that may not be high priority where he came from,” Korn said, noting the Predators can still send Lindback to the AHL for game action should the gaps between NHL starts get too long. “But I can tell you he’s gotten better every day. His learning curve is good, his goalie IQ is very good, and if you didn’t know, you would think he was more seasoned in North America than he is.”
Korn also remembers Finnish standout Niklas Backstrom waiting a month and a half for his first NHL start (he made two relief appearances before that) for the Minnesota Wild in 2006-07, and by the end of the season he was their No.1. Given how quickly Lindback has adjusted to the NHL game already, Korn sees no reason he can’t follow a similar learning curve, even though he’s only seen him at two summer conditioning camps before this year’s training camp.
They’ve had to coax the big Swede off his goal line a bit – hardly surprising given Korn’s preference for patience on the skate and the strong footwork that requires.
It can be seen in pupils like Tomas Vokoun, Chris Mason, Rinne and Ellis (though it’s interesting to note new Lightning goalie coach Frantz Jean told InGoal Magazine he is now trying to shorten up Ellis’s depth in Tampa Bay).
“He started pretty deep and we’ve had to pull him out a little bit, but his skating has improved,” Korn said. “He was more of a skuller, a heel pusher, so we have tried to improve that a little bit because I personally think it’s too slow, especially coming off your posts. This will get you a little more depth. I was concerned initially he didn’t get out very far and didn’t get much depth, but in games he’s really been smart at choosing depth. On rushes he’s been out there. One quick centring passes he’s been out there. On down low plays he’s been able to maintain his position pretty well. He’s made good decisions.”
In doing so, Lindback has shown he can adapt quickly to a North American style that features lots more traffic and shots from anywhere in a smaller rink. It’s a dramatic difference from the pass-first, shoot-almost-never style on the bigger European ice surfaces.
“He’s very aware of what’s happening around him and he’s been able to speed up everything because it happens very quickly here,” said Korn. “Guys put pucks in his feet off the wall that would never happen before. He used to have 15 feet behind the net and he’d let pucks go. Now he’s got 11 feet and he’s got to get them.”
It’s a big adjustment, no doubt. But if there’s one thing the Nashville Predators have lots of between the pipes this year, it’s “big.”
photo thanks to Kaatiya