It’s time for our annual countdown of the best 25 Nashville Predators players under 25 years old.
This is not only a tradition here at OTF, but is also something that you might see at many other SBNation NHL blogs. The premise is simple: rank the 25 best players who have not yet reached their 25th birthday (as of August 1st, 2017).
At #5, Juuse Saros.
Thanks to him finally getting some legitimate playing time in Nashville this past season, Saros should be a stranger to no one. Of course, the story has been written many times: he will be a seamless successor of Pekka Rinne when he retires (or maybe sooner). While it’s advantageous to have such confidence in your next franchise goaltender, let’s take a closer look at where Saros is at in his development.
In Saros’ draft year, he appeared in 37 gmaes for HPK U20 of Finland where he posted a 1.86 goals against average (GAA) and a .933% save percentage (SV%). That ridiculous season was good enough to be drafted in the fourth round in 2013. In the following season, he graduated to Finland’s top league and appeared in 44 games for HPK. He posted another stellar season - 1.76 GAA, .923 SV%, and SM-liiga Rookie of the Year - and a brilliant performance at the World Junior Championships - six games played, 1.57 GAA, .943 SV%, and a gold medal. In his final season in Finland, Saros’ numbers dipped a bit in 47 games for HPK - 2.14 GAA and a .929 SV% - and he struggled at the World Junior Championships.
2015-16 marked Saros’ first season in North America. He played one game for Nashville and 38 for the Milwaukee Admirals. He finished his AHL season with a 2.24 GAA, a .920 SV%, and an AHL All-Rookie Team selection. This past season was supposed to be Saros’ second full season in Milwaukee, but due to Marek Mazanec’s incompetence, Saros was thrust into the backup role fairly early into the season. After flip-flopping with Mazanec throughout the year, Saros finished his AHL season with a 1.86 GAA and a .934 SV% in 15 games before remaining permanently in Nashville. He appeared in 21 regular season game for the Preds and posted a respectable 2.35 GAA and a .923 SV%. In two playoff appearances, Saros was torched for 3.16 GAA and a .824 SV%.
Since Saros will be getting more starts moving forward until he replaces Rinne, it’s important to look at what his numbers really mean. We have a decent sample size from this season to get a sense of what Saros will be for the franchise. Out of Saros’ 19 stars (21 appearances), he had 13 Quality Starts (QS%) - good for .684%. A quality start is one where a goalie’s save percentage is greater than the average for the year or greater than .885 on nights with 20 or less shots against. As a measuring stick, the league average for Quality Starts is .53%. Saros also had a 6.14 Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA) which is goals prevented via his save percentage and shots faced versus the league average. For context, Saros finished fourth in the league in QS% of goalies with 20 or more games played and twentieth in GSAA - pretty good ranks for a backup. Saros’ potential is undoubtable. At this point, it is simply a matter of getting more starts and staying on the same track.
This highlight package is solid, because it allows us to compare Saros to another flashy prospect, Joonas Korpisalo. Saros, it has been well-noted, is not the biggest netminder. Regardless, he tracks the puck well and his lateral movement is on par with the best. He maintains a good presence in his crease and uses his tools effectively. Overall, a sound goaltender who relies on positioning to keep shooters on their feet.
I expect Saros to see around 30 games this season. While a 41-41 split would be desirable, 30 seems more reasonable to expect from the coaching staff. It’s only a matter of time before Saros is a full-time starter.
Saros is entering the final year of his three-year, entry-level contract. His cap hit at the NHL level will be $692,500. Upon expiry, he will be a restricted free agent.