The stellar play of Juuse “The Juice” Saros has not escaped the attention of any Nashville Predator fan. He’s even turned the biggest Pekka Rinne fans into screaming “Juuuuuuuuuuus” fans after a big save. Young Saros continues to impress in his first full season with the Predators. He’s riding backup to arguably one of the best goalies in the League, but that backup status comes with some heavy responsibilities.
Saros is the heir-apparent to the Nashville goal. Studying under Rinne, Saros has been a firsthand witness to Rinne’s incredible 2017-2018 season.
Even better is Saros’ improvement over the season. He had it rough in the fall. Saros dropped three straight games. However, Saros’ last four outings (as of April 2nd) have him at 3-0-1. He even picked up an assist on Sunday in Tampa Bay. His performance has been incredible. “Little Bear” even gets his name shouted during the National Anthem:
Shoutout to the #Preds fans who still shouted "Juu-Se" during the anthem. Lots of Gold in Tampa Bay.— Brooks Bratten (@brooksbratten) April 1, 2018
His current stats: in 22 games, Saros has a .926 save percentage. In 2016-2017, Saros started 19 games with a .923 sv%. He is improving this season and has been trusted to face high-end teams such as Tampa Bay, Winnipeg, and Minnesota.
Previous backup Carter Hutton started less than 20 games (18 in 2015 and 17 in 2016) for Nashville when Rinne was healthy. We’ve learned that a rested Rinne is a happy Rinne, and Saros collecting big wins while Rinne smiles on the bench is a perfect scenario.
Saros is currently signed to his initial entry-level deal. He’s a RFA this coming offseason, and locking Saros down for a few more years while Nashville’s goaltending pipeline develops under him will be key. Pekka Rinne is by no means done. He has another year on his $7 million/year deal. However, Rinne is 35. We can reasonably expect Saros to take on more work next season as he transitions into Rinne’s starter role.
As a reminder, Juuse Saros is 22 years old. He will be 23 on the 19th of April.
The Next Step?
Saros’ next contract (and subsequent contract) will be determined by a few factors:
- Will Rinne look to retire after his current contract expires next season?
- Do the Predators see Saros and Rinne splitting more games next season or in 2019-2020?
- Will Rinne accept less money in his next contract?
- Do the Predators have a viable backup for Saros once Rinne retires or will Saros be a workhorse?
Rinne and Saros = Finnish Goaler Brothers
Looking to Saros’ netminder mentor can help us determine what kind of contract Saros could sign this summer.
Pekka Rinne did not start more than 2 games with the Predators until 2008-2009. From there, his number of games increased as Rinne took on more responsibility as “the guy” in net for Nashville.
Saros’ transition to the big league has been a bit of a weird experience.
With Marek Mazanec proving incapable of handling backup responsibilities last season, Saros was recalled from Milwaukee and essentially traded spots with Mazanec. This season, Anders Lindback locks down the crease in Milwaukee and was a reliable backup for Rinne when Saros needed some minor-league seasoning in October, November, and December. Saros can be sent up and down between Milwaukee and Nashville due to his current contract. That will not be possible next season unless his contract is a two-way deal (not really likely).
Looking back to Rinne, his first one-way contract with Nashville saw him receiving $725,000 on a one-year deal. Rinne’s first “big” contract came one year later: a two-year deal at $3.4 million per year.
Carter Hutton made $725,000 annually when he was Nashville’s backup net minder. Aaron Dell in San Jose is making over $1 million to serve as Martin Jones’ backup. It’s difficult to find a young goaltender elsewhere in the League in the same situation as Saros.
Starting goaltender John Gibson makes $2.3 million/year in Anaheim. His elder backup Ryan Miller is making $2 million annually. This is perhaps one of the more even splits in contracts for goaltenders in the League. More commonly, we see huge contracts for starters like Henrik Lundqvist ($8.5 million/year) and smaller contracts for their backups who play between 20-30 games a season.
No one expected Connor Hellebuyck to take on Steve Mason’s starting responsibilities in Winnipeg this season. Hellebuyck is signed to a one-year deal worth $2.25 million. Mason’s contract is two years and it’s worth around $4 million annually. However, Winnipeg is paying Michael Hutchinson over a $1 million a year to hang out in the minor leagues. Yikes.
(Comparatively, Anders Lindback is on a one year deal in Milwaukee worth $650,000.)
Looking to the East, Matt Murray came into goaltending glory under the incredible Marc-Andre Fleury. His entry level contract took him to Pittsburgh’s Cup in 2016. He signed a deal in the offseason for 3 years at $3.75 mil/year. However, with no solid backup in Pittsburgh after Fleury’s departure, Murray’s contract is designed to be the contract of a starting goaltender. For Nashville, Saros is not the starter...yet. That’s why I assess that Saros will receive a bridge contract until he assumes full starting responsibilities.
One key I see when looking at other goaltenders is how backups tend to be developed. Some are rushed into the League and have little time to get solid starts at the AHL-level.
On the other hand, other clubs develop their backups into starter-quality goaltenders. Think about Antti Raanta, former Rangers backup and current Coyotes starter. Nashville does things right and takes time developing goaltenders.
The Goaltending Pipeline
Currently, the Predators have six goaltenders on contract: Rinne, Saros, Lindback, Matt O’Connor, Troy Grosenick, and new signee Niclas Westerholm.
Jake Paterson is on an AHL-only deal, and he’s currently loaned to the Toledo Walleye. His status is unclear with Milwaukee at this time, but I’m not optimistic.
I would expect to see Matt O’Connor seek a goaltending gig elsewhere next season. He has been less than stellar for Milwaukee, and he’s spent a better part of this season bouncing around between various ECHL clubs.
There have been very few bad things about Nashville’s re-signing of Anders Lindback. In fact, I can’t think of any. He’s been “the guy” for Milwaukee this season, backstopping a young team who often struggles defensively. His current contract is only for this season. Lindback will be 30 next season.
Based on his performance this season, it would be smart to re-sign Lindback. He’s proven himself at the AHL level and provides steady support if needed in Nashville. Lindback was one of two Admirals at this year’s AHL All-Star Game.
Trade deadline pickup Troy Grosenick is signed through next season. He will likely stay with the Admirals. Grosenick will be 29 next season.
The Predators signed undrafted Finnish goaltender Niclas Westerholm to a 3-year entry level deal this week. His deal will begin in 2018-2019. Westerholm certainly adds to Nashville’s goaltending depth. According to a press release from his current team, Westerholm could practice with the Milwaukee Admirals as their season winds down.
#Preds signing Niclas Westerholm's first career Liiga win came vs league-leading Kärpät - he turned aside 29 of 32 shots, plus all four shootout attempts. According to SaiPa's announcement, he'll possibly leave for North America on Friday to train with the Milwaukee Admirals.— Marco Bombino (@marco_bombino) April 3, 2018
[Editor’s note: check out Eric’s breakdown of the Westerholm signing here.]
With O’Connor seeking opportunities elsewhere after this season and the uncertainty with Lindback, it’s good to have additional goaltending depth in the form of Westerholm while prospects Karel Vejmelka, Konstantin Volkov, and Tomas Vomacka continue to develop in their respective leagues. Eric has some updates on the Preds’ goaltending prospects here.
Pekka Rinne will most likely play through the end of his contract, and then sign a 1-3 year deal to finish his career with Nashville. This entirely depends on whether Rinne can win a Cup with Nashville in 2018 or 2019. A shorter contract for Rinne (1 or 2 years) might be all he wants in order to finish his career as a Predator. He will, of course, have to settle for less money than his current $7 million/year contract is giving him.
This being said, I forecast Juuse Saros to sign a 2-year deal this summer worth between $850,000- 1,000,000 annually. This deal will see the coaching staff determine whether Saros can be “the guy” in net that Rinne has been for so many years. How will Saros perform when he starts 5-6 games in a row? Could he carry his team during a tough playoff series? Can he stay healthy?
Once the starting job belongs to Saros, expect a larger, lengthier contract starting in the 2020-2021 season.
The Predators have time with Pekka Rinne. It’s safe to say that at 35, Rinne is having the best season of his career. Saros can remain his goaltending partner until Rinne decides it’s time to hang up his skates. However, Saros will certainly be taking on more responsibilities in this next contract and beyond. He’s shown he is more than capable.
It’s also a possibility for Nashville to sign Saros to a one-year deal that sees him through the end of Rinne’s current contract (2018-2019). Saros would still be “the backup” while starting a few more games than he did this season...perhaps closer to 30 games.
If, in theory, Nashville wins the Cup either this season or next season, Rinne’s next deal might reflect more on Nashville’s intention to play Saros as their next starting goaltender. Would Rinne want to go out on top with a Cup win? Perhaps.
At Rinne’s contract extension after next season, it’s plausible that another deal would be extended to Saros that would reflect “starting goaltender” money, perhaps a 3-year deal at $3-4 million annually.