For the first time in franchise history, the Nashville Predators have a goaltending controversy heading into the postseason.
The Predators are set to face the Arizona Coyotes in a best-of-five play-in series in just over two weeks. So far, head coach John Hynes hasn’t said whether Pekka Rinne or Juuse Saros will get the start in goal, and it sounds like he’s going to take as much time as he needs to make that decision.
“It’s really observing them every day... How they practice, fitness level, tracking the puck, rebound control, how they play in competitive game-like situations. Those are things if you’re evaluating certain guys — those are the things you’ll have to look at. And when we do some real scrimmaging — game-like scrimmaging — those will be some [evaluation] situations for both goaltenders.”
John Hynes on which Predators goalie will start Game One vs. Arizona
It would have been almost unheard to suggest even a hint of a goaltender debate at this time two years ago. But as the great Bruce Banner once said, “these are confusing times, my friend.” Goaltending, usually the Predators’ strong suit, has been inconsistent at best this season.
At the stoppage, Juuse Saros had seemingly taken the reins as the top dog, earning the starting nod in 14 of the Preds’ last 20 games. That stretch was arguably the best of Saros’s young career. He posted a 10-4-0 record with 3 shutouts and a .940 save percentage.
But any talk of “end-of-season momentum” is like the points system from Whose Line Is It Anyway... it just doesn’t matter. By the time the playoffs begin, the Predators would have gone almost five whole months without competitive hockey, close to a full offseason in a non-playoff year.
And that’s why Pekka Rinne is back in the mix. Hockey’s return to play represents a fresh start for the legendary 37-year-old netminder. Statistically, this was Rinne’s worst season of his NHL career, and despite showing flashes of the “old” Pekka down the stretch, he just couldn’t seem to string multiple solid performances together. To make matters worse, in his last game action, Rinne allowed eight goals on 31 shots against Edmonton.
Based on some of the early reports from practice, however, it appears Rinne may be returning to form.
I'm feeling great. I've been putting in a lot of work. I'm feeling very motivated from the end of the season... I wasn't really happy with this season the way I was playing... #Preds Pekka Rinne.— ESPN 102.5 The Game (@1025TheGame) July 13, 2020
John Hynes on Rinne: "Pekka Rinne has come back here in fantastic shape. He's working unbelievably hard in practice, he's looking good. I think (Rinne and Saros) push each other but I think it's a pretty special relationship that both of them have."— Mike Morreale (@mikemorrealeNHL) July 14, 2020
So that takes us back to the million-dollar question... the one occupying Preds social media, chatrooms, and whatever the work-from-home equivalent of a water cooler is. Which goaltender will the Predators rely on in the postseason?
The answer: Why not both?
I know what you’re thinking. Having two starters in the postseason is a hockey cardinal sin. It’s akin to the old “if you have two quarterbacks, you have no quarterbacks” adage in college football. You go with the hot goaltender and ride him through the entire postseason.
But that’s the train of thought in a normal postseason, and I don’t need to tell you there’s nothing normal about this restart. Not only should this be treated essentially as a new season, we are also going to be dealing with a condensed schedule. The Predators will start with three games in four days, with Games 2 and 3 being played back-to-back, which is usually unheard of in the postseason. And while we haven’t seen hints of the schedule for the remaining rounds, it’s a safe bet we’ll see games played at a similar pace.
That’s where the Predators could rely on both goaltenders. If both Rinne and Saros are in good form at the end of camp, it won’t be far-fetched to see both get starts within that first three-game stretch. And if each plays relatively well (or are at least passable), and the Preds advance, we could see that trend continue into the next round, or at least until one guy really starts to build momentum and cements the job.
But let’s say Hynes doesn’t want to do that. What if he wants to give the job to either Rinne or Saros and have him be “the guy” for the extent of the playoffs. Even then, the Predators will need both guys in form.
For instance, let’s say Rinne gets the job. Not only does he have the experience, but historically, his start-of-seasons have been better than Saros’s. Even this year, Rinne’s statistical worst, he started 8-0-2 with two shutouts. Since the 2014-2015 season, Rinne is 28-8-7 in October with a .926 save percentage.
Pekka Rinne in October
Even then, and even if Rinne gets the first handful of starts, Saros will need to be on standby. Age, health, and — sadly — confidence are all question marks for Rinne. If there are any signs of a struggle, that’s when the Predators will need Saros...not just as a “replacement,” but as the same game-changing backstop we saw in the last half of the regular season.
So that begs the question, why not just start Saros? After all, he was the most in-form throughout the season. Saros displayed the confidence and consistency as “the guy” that, occasionally, many felt he lacked as the Predators’ back-up. In a postseason in which the Preds really have little to lose, it would make sense to simply let the heir apparent ascend to the playoff throne.
But Saros is also unproven—not just in the postseason, but as a starter in general. Whether he could maintain his red-hot form for long stretches was a question we didn’t get to answer due to the stoppage. He’s played well in past playoff appearances, but those were all in relief. It’s not unfair to question whether Saros can handle a full (in this case) 25- to 30-game postseason and stay consistent throughout.
And if Saros goes cold, that’s where the Predators will need the Rinne of old to step up. Rinne has the experience of playing a full playoff schedule. He knows what it takes to prepare for 25-30 consecutive starts, how to bounce back after a lackluster performance, and how to get into the mindset needed to prepare in a do-or-die, winner-take-all final game.
Everything about this restart is so unpredictable that the Predators will need to rely on both goaltenders, at least, to start the season. The team will start the postseason cold, with only one pre-season game to piece together the puzzle that could get them to the Stanley Cup. It’s this season, more than ever, that the Preds need to prepare for the unexpected — including the very likely possibility that both Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros will see significant game action.
The question has been “who will win the starting job?” Instead, we may need to ask if BOTH Rinne and Saros can help Nashville steal a championship.