- Craig Custance
"He's a funny kid. He's really laid-back," said teammate Matt Cullen on Tuesday. "Kinda happy-go-lucky kind of kid."
But most importantly?
"Very talented goalie," Cullen said. "I've been very impressed."
And that was before the shutout. On Tuesday night, Mazanec shut down the Red Wings in Nashville's 2-0 victory to earn his second consecutive win. He has stopped 66 of 68 shots against Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and the rest of the Blackhawks and Red Wings.
He was packing up his gear after the shutout in Detroit while a crowd formed around his equipment, looked up and jokingly wondered what we were all waiting for. He was asked how he thought he performed.
"No goals? Was not bad," he answered. "I felt very good today. Every game is better."
He was quick to point out that the defense in front of him was the reason the Predators won, and he's right. If Nashville is going to claw back into the playoff hunt without franchise goalie Pekka Rinne, it needs to play the way it did against Detroit. This was a shutout for the goalie but a truly team win. The reality is that Mazanec was rarely tested.
"They don't have a lot of goal opportunities today," he said. "Very easy game for me."
Teammates are seeing the confidence grow in the 22-year-old goalie, a 6-foot-4 late-round draft pick who is blossoming in the Nashville system, as is often the case for goalies under the guidance of goalie coach Mitch Korn.
Mazanec's emergence, at least in the short term, has eased the pressure on GM David Poile to go get a goalie in the trade market. Rinne had hip surgery on Oct. 24 and is still recovering from a bacterial infection in his hip. He is scheduled to have another MRI next week, when the team will get a better sense of the timeline of his return.
The challenge for the Predators is that everybody responds to an infection differently, almost in the same way players vary in concussion recovery time. So things may be going well now, but the Predators still can't predict with any confidence when their franchise goalie will be back on the ice.
So far, the Predators have been patient with their internal options. Carter Hutton remembers his initial reaction when news of Rinne's health issue surfaced.
"My first instinct was 'Oh, crap. [Jose] Theodore is going to get picked up, or [Ilya] Bryzgalov, or they're going to deal for somebody,'" Hutton said Tuesday. "A bunch of things run through your head, right? At the same time, you have confidence in yourself too. 'I'm good enough to be here. I can get the job done.' There are times you think about stuff; it's just human nature. There's a business side of it.”
Those things were considered. Agents for unsigned goalies have reached out to the Predators. There was discussion in Nashville about signing Bryzgalov before he reached his deal with the Oilers. Last week, colleague Pierre LeBrun reported that the Predators and Ducks have had trade conversations about Jonas Hiller.
Even with Mazanec's recent success, the Predators haven't ruled out a trade. It's just a tricky situation because if they're going to make an external move in goal, they have one shot to do it. This isn't a franchise that can afford to cycle through pricey options while Rinne recovers. Nashville protects its assets, both financially and in the forms of draft picks and prospects.
If the Predators are making a move in goal, it will be for a goalie they're absolutely convinced will come in and help this season.
The Hiller option is an interesting one, and of the two Ducks goalies available, he is likely the preference. The problem, besides the uncertainty of Rinne's availability, is the price tag. The Predators are a budget team and are already paying Rinne $7 million. Hiller is earning $4.5 million this season, so that would be nearly $12 million committed to goaltending for a team that isn't a cap team. The Predators like Hiller, but they're also well aware that his best hockey came before he was sidelined by vertigo. He has a .898 save percentage in 12 games. By comparison, Mazanec is at .927, earning $610,000 (per CapGeek.com). So every win they get from Mazanec becomes one of the best values in the NHL.
Another option could be Washington's Michal Neuvirth, who can't be happy with the distance being created between him and Braden Holtby. He is signed through next season at $2.5 million, and even that might be too high a ticket if the Predators believe Rinne will recover fully and have faith in Hutton and Mazanec.
The likely course of action is to wait until next week's MRI and see if there's any more clarity on the Rinne recovery front. If there's a setback, then it may be time for the Predators to make their one move.
Other trade needs as teams evaluate one quarter of the way through the season: