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The State of the Nashville Net

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We know Saros is Rinne’s current backup, but what does the future hold for Nashville’s goaltenders?

Goaltending might be one of my favorite topics of conversation when it comes to hockey. Nashville has one of the top goaltenders in the NHL in Pekka Rinne, but the fact that another elite goaltender is waiting in the wings should give Nashville fans plenty to be excited about. Where do we stand with Rinne entering the last year of his contract? Who will be between the pipes in Milwaukee? I take a look at these questions and more below.

Juuse The Future

Juuse Saros signed a neat three-year deal last month that pays him $1.5 million per year. He will be due another contract in the summer of 2021.

However, one of the biggest questions in Nashville is the performance of Pekka Rinne. The newly-crowned 2018 Vezina Trophy winner had an incredible 2017-2018 regular season. His .927 save percentage last season was one of the best he’s posted in his career. He played 59 total games, the fewest he’s played as starting netminder since his injury-filled season in 2013-2014.

Young Saros started 23 games last season and played in 26. He posted a very nice .925 sv%, just a tad higher than his .923 in 21 games from the previous season.

Rinne’s contract is up next summer. It’s largely believed that Rinne might sign a shorter-term contract as Saros transitions into the starter role…if he’s interested in such a role as a Predator. How the organization will transition Saros into the starter role remains to be seen. Could we see closer to a 50-32 game split this season?

While he has not played more than 26 games in a season at the NHL level, Saros started 38 games with the Milwaukee Admirals alongside Czech goaltender Marek Mazanec in 2015-2016. That was his first season on North American ice as part of the Predators organization.

There are 82 games in a season, and a true 41-game split would serve to keep Pekka Rinne fresh and get Juuse Saros more time in an NHL net.

For a team looking to make another Cup run, Rinne’s playoff performance has been subject to plenty of scrutiny over the last few years. A lackluster showing in 2018’s playoffs ended with heartbreak in Game 7 of Round 2.

All that being said, Rinne was just rated #7 of the Top 10 Goalies Right Now by NHL Network.

Does Rinne need more rest as he gets older? He will be 36 in November. If you’re coach Peter Laviolette, do you rest Rinne more in the regular season in order to keep him fresh for the playoffs? What happens if he’s rusty rather than rested?

There were several times last season where I thought Saros should start the game. It seems that Rinne was the starter more often than he should have been in order to build his Vezina case. This season, with Saros proving himself with a larger workload, Rinne can be convinced to sign a short deal next summer in order to provide Nashville with solid goaltending for a few more years.

Would Rinne sign such a deal that basically transitions him to a backup role? That remains to be seen.

Planning For Pekka

With players like Colton Sissons, Ryan Hartman, and Kevin Fiala needing new deals next summer, Rinne’s re-signing would have to carry far less of a cap hit than his current $7 million per year deal. David Poile mentioned in last week’s interview with Ryan Ellis that he would begin talking with Rinne at training camp in September.

Rinne is perhaps the most well-loved Predator on the roster right now. Fans were left scratching their head in May, however, when Rinne appeared to crumble before their eyes in the playoffs. Was his poor performance because he started too many games in the regular season?

At 35-going-on-36, I’d suggest Pekka Rinne should start no more than 50 games this season. This would give Saros 32 starts. We’ve seen how incredible Saros is on the second-half of back-to-back games. He performed admirably when the team was tired in front of him. There should be no doubt that Saros could backstop the team to a playoff finish.

Truth be told, Saros could probably start upwards of 35 games without seeing a drop in performance. He played 40+ games per season with the Finnish League from 2013-2015.

The question remains whether Rinne will want to sign a contract extension in Nashville. It hurts to think that he would sign in the NHL. Most of us envision Rinne as a Predator for life. Will he retire after this season, possibly without a Cup? Even if he’s less serviceable for the regular-season grind, having a solid tandem of Rinne and Saros could prove invaluable as they continue to push for a Cup.

AP

Netminders in the Minors

In the minors, there is not a clear-cut frontrunner for a backup to Saros. In 2-3 years when Saros is the starter in Nashville, one of Troy Grosenick, Niclas Westerholm, Miroslav Svoboda, or another unsigned goaltender prospect would presumably step up to the big club.

OTF’s Eric suggests Svoboda could be a solid NHL backup option in his Top 25 Under 25 ranking.

However, the AHL crease is somewhat clogged this season. The Admirals also signed veteran Tom McCollum to an AHL-level deal. Will Westerholm remain overseas and leave McCollum, Svoboda, and Grosenick to fight for ice time in Milwaukee? There’s a lot of questions in Nashville goaltending pipeline, but hopefully the goalies in Milwaukee can provide stability for a young team. Perhaps one or two of them will develop into a NHL-quality netminder.

Recent draft picks Tomas Vomacka and Karel Vejmelka remain unsigned by Nashville. Both have put up some nice numbers in the USHL and the Czech League, respectively. Could another season with their current clubs further develop these young goaltenders into AHL-ready players?

Westerholm is signed through summer 2021. Grosenick becomes a free agent next summer. Svoboda is signed through summer 2020. McCollum’s deal is AHL-only, and it’s only for the 2018-2019 season. I’d assume that one of the three would play for an ECHL team…although Nashville is currently without an affiliate.

2018 7th-round pick Milan Kloucek is 20 years old and probably will play several more years with the Czech League before making the jump to North America.

For what it’s worth, Saros is the only Nashville goaltender that appears on Corey Pronman’s ranking of Nashville prospects in The Athletic.

These factors above might give Poile some pause next summer as he seeks to re-sign Rinne to another contract. These rookie goalies need a bit of time to develop in Milwaukee.

There is no doubt that Saros is the goaltender of Nashville’s future. But what if Rinne is hurt this season and Saros is bumped to starter? Who performs backup duty in Nashville? In my opinion, the future of the net in Nashville after Saros is a little questionable.

This Season

As noted previously, I’d like to see Saros start 32 games with Rinne taking about 50. That number for either netminder could vary due to injuries or scheduling concerns. What I think we’ll really see will be about 53-55 starts for Rinne with Saros taking the remainder. Saros will likely continue to take the second game of back-to-back outings. Rinne is still under contract for one more season; the Nashville net is his.

This season is seen by many as the beginning of the transition from Rinne to Saros. The playoff performance of Rinne is still a real concern, but also remember that Saros was able to give the Predators a chance at a comeback in each of his playoff relief appearances. He posted a .952 sv% in the four games in April-May he played in relief of Rinne.

With Ellis under contract long term and new contracts forthcoming for the younger guys like Fiala, Sissons, and Hartman, I’d expect Rinne to sign a 2 or 3 year deal to provide stability in net while Saros transitions to the starter role.

For now, there is no doubt that Rinne will be in between the pipes for Game 1 and also on opening night in Bridgestone Arena. He still gets the loudest cheers and his jersey is definitely one of the most popular. Rinne’s #35 could very well be one of the first jerseys to be retired in Bridgestone Arena. He’s within 9 wins of becoming the winningest Finnish goaltender in NHL history. Expect him to be around for a few more years as the Predators chase the Cup.

However, loyal fans have found a way to shower their love on “Little Bear” when he occupies the crease on game night. It comes in the form of a rephrased anthem stanza: “Oh, say can Juuse….”

All statistics courtesy of hockey-reference.com, NHL.com, and AHL.com.