European Hockey Tour games determined the final rosters for the 2014 IIHF World Championships that will take place in Minsk, Belarus, for many countries, including Finland. Battling for a spot on the team coached by Erkka Westerlund were two young Finnish stars, center Teuvo Teräväinen and goaltender Juuse Saros. The 19-year-old netminder is a Nashville Predators property since the organization selected him in the 4th round of the 2013 NHL entry draft.
Saros, a native of Hämeenlina, currently playing for his hometown club in the Finnish Liiga, introduced himself to a much bigger audience during the 2014 World Junior Championships in Mälmö, Sweden. Posting a .943 SV% and a 1.57 GAA record, earning a spot on the tournament`s all-star team, he lead Finland to gold. During the year, the youngster quickly became a building block behind the HPK`s defensive corp and finished his quite impressive first pro season on a high note. When asked about joining the men`s national team for the pre- WCH games, he didn`t hesitate for a second. Saros relished the challenge and didn`t disappoint, even posted a shutout against Slovaks on their home turf in Kosice.
After a recent 2-1 shootout win over the Czechs in Stockholm, the Finnish hockey federation made an announcement and it`s good news for the Nashville Predators fans. This young, talented goaltender indeed is on the final roster and will play alongside his role model and future teammate Pekka Rinne, and Milwaukee`s leading scorer Miikka Salomäki in Belarus, trying to replicate what Suomi achieved in Sochi, Russia a few months ago.
I had a chance to speak with Juuse during his brief visit to Slovakia. And here`s how it went down:
Did you follow the NHL before you actually got drafted?
"Actually yes, a lot. Almost every morning (I kept track of) the results and sometimes I watched the highlights too."
What were your first thoughts when you found out that the Predators selected you? Especially since Nashville is a traditionally strong goaltending market and the Preds have a track record of success with goaltenders from Scandinavia.
"It was a bit of a surprise for me. Well, maybe anything would, because I didn`t have a clue about who might pick me. It`s a good organization."
Do you still remember the draft combine?
"It was nice. Some of the clubs` representatives were really loose, others were very serious about it. Maybe they wanted to see how I`d react. There weren`t that many interviews with the media after, just a couple reporters. (Physical) testing was the hardest part."
But you didn`t attend the draft if I recall correctly.
"I knew that I wasn`t going to be selected in the first three rounds. I also knew I was going to the development camp no matter who`d take me, so I didn`t want to fly over (back and forth) two times. And in August, there was also the tournament in Lake Placid. Lots of travel."
As I said, Nashville has an impressive track record of developing goaltenders. That being said, most of them are at least 6'3" or taller. Even Anders Lindbäck, who`s no longer with the organization or Devan Dubnyk, who they traded for mid-season and then got rid of, are very tall.
"Yeah, I`m like their mini-me (laughs)."
Have you ever thought about how special it is to be from Hämeenlinna, climbing your way up the latter and now playing for HBK in the Finnish Liiga?
"Of course it`s a really good thing. I didn`t think about it much like a year ago but yes, it`s very nice to play in your hometown."
It`s truly been a crazy calendar year for you. Getting drafted, having a busy summer, winning gold at the WJC in Sweden and now you`re on your way to Minsk. Even if as the 3rd goaltender, that kind of experience is something you cannot buy.
"It`s been like a dream to me so far. And that gold medal was something special. Still is."
What`s next for Juuse Saros?
"Hopefully playing in Belarus for Finland. And after that, the season will finally be over and I`m gonna look ahead to next one. Of course I want to develop my game (further) in every area."
Any details you`d like share?
"Rebound control could be one."
Do you know where you`ll play next year?
"I still have a contract with Hameenlina."
Has your agent contacted the Predators about their plans with you yet?
"No, not yet. Maybe when all this is over."
And what would you personally like to do?
"I think I`d like to stay (in Hämeenlinna). Get to play a lot. There`s no rush."
Who was your role model growing up?
"Actually Marc-Andre Fleury (shrugs)."
Do you pay attention what`s often said about him during the playoffs?
"Yeah. But as I got older I started watching other goaltenders as well."
Were they tall or not?
"Pekka Rinne was one, and then Tukka Rask. So yes, he`s pretty tall too."
What about smaller guys like Halak, Enroth or Khudobin?
"Not so much, actually (smiles). But Tim Thomas was one of them."
But you obviously hope to be one of them someday.
"Yes, yes, of course."
And with that, Saros ended our short conversation with an ear-to-ear smile that`s so typical for him.
Thanks again to Tomas Kmec of SlovakProspects.com for sharing this interview with us, we look forward to seeing how Saros develops overseas and whether he eventually gives Nashville a Finnish 1-2 punch in goal behind Pekka Rinne.