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Nashville’s Goaltending: Progress Report

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Nashville’s goaltending is always the subject of intense scrutiny. How did our pair of Finnish netminders perform in their first 11 games?

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Nashville is very proud of their Western Conference championship. However, it’s November, and the Predators are 5-4-2 and about to take a long road trip out west.

*For the purposes of this series, I will divide the season into 10-11 games to analyze goaltender progression/regression and season-long performance.

Pekka Rinne

It’s helpful to remind ourselves that stellar goaltending is arguably the primary reason the Predators were able advance to the conference final. Of course, ear-shattering goals from Kevin Fiala, Colton Sissons, and Ryan Ellis certainly helped.

It’s not exactly a secret that Pekka Rinne provided the Predators with steady goaltending when they needed him the most last season. So how has our tall Finnish friend fared this season? Let’s take a look.

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Through the team’s first 11 games, we’ve seen some polarization in the Nashville goaltenders. In his 8 games played, Rinne can be proud of his .940 save percentage.

Perhaps the best part of Rinne’s current output is his 1.86 GAA. Since Boston scored 3 goals on Rinne and Philadelphia added another 5, Rinne has kept his goals against at 2 or lower. This is the Pekka Rinne we all know and love. It’s evident Rinne has found ways to remain sharp, even as he ages. He turns 35 this month. (Has he discovered Nicholas Flamel’s Elixir of Life?)

When compared to his numbers at the beginning of last season, it’s hard to process that this is the same goaltender. Rinne was wildly inconsistent to begin last season, and this season, he is certainly the leading candidate for consistency among all Predators. Check out Rinne’s first 8 games this season compared to his first 8 games last season:

Rinne’s First Eight Starts 2016-2017 vs. 2017-2018

2017-2018 save % 2016-2017 save %
2017-2018 save % 2016-2017 save %
@ CHI 0.977 @ COL 0.966
CGY 0.931 @ SJS 0.885
COL 0.953 @ LAK 0.933
@ CHI 0.943 @ ANA 0.765
DAL 0.968 @ DET (soup game) 0.905
PHI 0.833 DAL 0.946
@ BOS 0.903 CHI 0.917

Pekka Rinne is currently third in the NHL in save percentage ranking behind Jonathan Quick and Anders Nilsson. He also ranks third in goals against average (GAA) behind Quick and Sergei Bobrovsky. He is tied for five wins with several other goaltenders, including Ben Bishop and Corey Crawford.

Here’s another interesting graphic. Per hockeyviz.com, Rinne leads all NHL goaltenders controlled for 200 minutes of play in 5v5 save percentage:

Courtesy of @IneffectiveMath

Rinne has been called on to make some incredible saves when his teammates hang him out to dry (see clip below). In most situations, Rinne is able to make the big save to keep the boys in the game. The Predators absolutely have to play better in front of Rinne. He has been the first star for the Predators in October.

Rinne is owning the Chicago Blackhawks lately.

Finally, to my untrained non-expert self, it seems that Rinne’s positioning has been very solid thus far. He is square to the puck, challenging the shooter, and positionally able to react to a change in direction or a quick pass. He appears to be relying less on his size to make saves, instead relying on his positioning to be firmly in place so that his saves are less desperate. Like all goaltenders, Rinne’s positioning can sometimes leave the crowd in a panic (AKA “Adventure Time”).

The sole question for Pekka Rinne is whether his spectacular play will be possible through the rest of the season.

Juuse Saros

Juuse Saros has not had the best October. In 11 games, the younger Finn has been trusted to three starts, two of which were on the road. Saros was on the receiving end of some Penguins shot barrages, allowing four goals on 34 shots and posting a meager .882 save percentage.

In a matinee disappointment against the Rangers, Saros allowed three goals on 14 shots, a .786 rate.

And finally, in his first home start, Little Bear allowed six goals on 23 shots from the New York Islanders.

His .817 save percentage over three games is discouraging. Even more concerning is his 4.36 GAA. Yikes.

Christopher Hanewinckel / USA TODAY Sports.

So what’s the deal here? Saros had a .923% in 21 games last season. Is he suddenly awful? Not so fast, o ye of little faith. There are two factors in Saros’ weak play.

The first issue is the back-to-back gameplay of the Predators. Saturday’s loss was after a big win Friday evening in Chicago. The players are already tired and that pretty much spells doom for the young goaltender Saros.

The second and most glaring problem is the rust. Saros started last season in Milwaukee as the starting goaltender, securing plenty of wins in fairly regular starts. The backup last season in Milwaukee was Jonas Gunnarsson, and he wasn’t exactly the most reassuring goaltender.

After the infamous “soup game” last season in which Saros led the food-poisoned Predators (and some Admirals) to victory over the Penguins, the Predators flip-flopped Saros and Marek Mazanec between Nashville and Milwaukee. Around December, Mazanec was demoted to Milwaukee and Saros became the full-time backup in Nashville.

It’s clear that Rinne needs rest in order to remain sharp. In his first eight games, Rinne has been spectacular. However, there’s still 71 games to go before the playoffs begin. Saros absolutely requires more starts in order to knock off the rust, but right now, his reliability is questionable. He has given up bad rebounds that result in goals, and he has been a little slow to read the puck.

Saros was successful last season as the backup because he had played many games as an Admiral before he made a permanent home in Nashville. This season, those opportunities are not available…but they should be. If the coaching staff and management send Saros to Milwaukee for several games, Saros will likely be able to return to Nashville and excel in net when called upon.

Anders Lindback is reliable enough as a potential backup for Rinne in the event of an emergency. Many Predators fans would definitely like to see Lindback in Nashville for a while, even if he doesn’t start a single game.

Anders Lindback

Side note: it’s a small sample size, but Lindback has won five of his six starts and has a .909 save percentage What I saw out of Jake O’Connor in Milwaukee two weekends ago wasn’t exactly inspiring, but O’Connor, much like young Saros, also needs starts in order to prevent rustiness.

My vote is for Lindback, because he could ensure Rinne doesn’t get worn out starting every game while Saros is getting starts in Milwaukee.

Saros had a few bright spots in his recent subpar performances, including this shoulder save on Anders Lee. It is imperative that he steps up consistently when Rinne needs rest.

The Predators should provide Little Bear the starts he needs with Milwaukee to keep him sharp. It’s perfectly fine if this occurs multiple times in the season.

The Predators will rely on Saros as the season goes on to secure much-needed wins in the tight Central Division. Without quality starts, a sluggish and flat Saros is not reliable enough to give Rinne the rest he needs.

The Predators owe it to their future in net.

All statistics, videos, and graphs are courtesy of hockeyviz.com, hockey-reference.com, the AHL, and the NHL.