The Nashville Predators are at a crossroads.
In an up-and-down season, with more downs than ups, the Predators are not really getting anywhere. They sit in 5th place in the Central, a division that many predicted they would win, and are currently two points out of the 2nd wildcard spot. They certainly aren’t making anyone believe they are the team that many thought they were in the offseason. There’s too much inconsistency on offense, too many problems defensively, and, most importantly, too little reliability in goal. And now injuries are becoming a problem, most notably with P.K. Subban out for some time.
The Preds have been at a similar crossroads before. They were in the same position this time last year.
Out of a playoff spot and playing poorly with not much hope on the horizon, General Manager David Poile made what was at the time the biggest trade in franchise history: sending standout defenseman Seth Jones to Columbus for top line centerman Ryan Johansen. This filled the glaring hole at 1C that the Preds were missing and it paid off. Joey was nearly a point per game player for Nashville and put up eight points in the playoffs. If Poile doesn’t make that move, the Preds aren’t even likely in the playoffs, let alone creating incredible memories like this one.
Here’s the rub: the Predators have made the trades they need to make. There isn’t really an available player out there that would make the difference the Preds need (Matt Duchene is the exception, but the cost is probably too high for GMDP to make that move) especially when you look at the Predators most damaging flaw.
The most glaring problem the Predators have right now is in goal and there’s not really a close second. How do they fix this? By splitting the goaltending duties 50/50 between Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros.
To anyone not associated with the Nashville Predators, this would make perfect sense. Plenty of other successful teams roll with a goalie tandem, recognizing that a regular season plus playoffs is too grueling for one goalie to take. The Predators as an organization have actively ignored that logic, relying on Rinne to fulfill more than his reasonable share of the goalie duties. Rinne has started the 4th most regular season games in the league since 2008 (472 starts) and the 3rd most regular season games in the league since 2014 (158 starts).
Prior to the 2014-15 season, and before turning 32 years old, Rinne was a top tier goalie and worth starting every night. That’s changed. This is not a detriment to Rinne, who is inarguably the best goaltender the Predators have ever had, it’s just logic. Older goalies get injured more often and aren’t as likely to return to full health once they recover. They are slower to recover between game starts and are generally just not as quick to react to saves than they were at 26, 27, 28 years old.
Between 2008 and 2011, Rinne stopped 92.1% of shots faced in 247 games. He also stopped 91.6% of shots faced in 28 playoff games. That’s a really solid run. I don’t need to remind any Preds fans how incredibly important Rinne was to the Preds’ playoff runs those years. They were running with David Legwand as a 1C for crying out loud. Stopping the puck was the only thing they were doing well.
But over the last two years and this year, Rinne is older and not as effective. Since 2014, Rinne has stopped 91.5% of shots faced in 158 games played, which doesn’t sound like a terrible average, but that puts him at 31st in the entire league. He ranks 22nd in the league in 5v5 save percentage at 92.8%, which is better, but still below average. He ranks 53rd in the league in save percentage on the penalty kill at 86.0%. He ranks 63rd in the league in high danger save percentage at 75.9%, which is embarrassingly low. To say the Preds have been hurt most by below average goaltending would be an understatement.
Enter Juuse Saros. The young Finn has only played in six games this year, but he currently has a 95.7% save percentage. This is obviously a number that will fall as he plays more games, but he has looked every bit as good as those numbers suggest. He is only 21 years old and has plenty of tread on his tires. He put up ridiculous numbers in the AHL (a 93.8% save percentage in 13 games this year, an improvement upon his already impressive 92.0% in 38 games last year) and has shown that he can make the jump to the NHL.
Here’s the most important take away in all of this: Juuse Saros doesn’t need to be a world class goalie or have a Vezina trophy to show he deserves to start more games. He simply needs to be an above average goalie that can give the Predators a chance to win games every time he plays. This would put him in clear position to take starts away from Rinne. He is definitely that, and probably more. It’s time to see more Saros.
How much more Saros do we need? The Predators have 46 regular season games left this season. I’d say the Saros needs to start, at minimum, 20 of those games, though I would prefer he start more like 24-26.
If the organization can find it in themselves to bench a $7 million goalie for half of the remaining games of the year, the team should turn a corner. If not, then the Preds are not likely to create any lasting playoff memories this year.