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Juuse Saros is the only thing keeping the Predators together

The young Finn is so good at hockey that some might argue it’s a detriment to the Predators.

Colorado Avalanche v Nashville Predators Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Despite some more encouraging performances in recent games, the Nashville Predators are still giving their all to get even a taste of the wild card spot. Their goals per game stat was at one point only better than only the Chicago Blackhawks, who sit last in the Western Conference standings by four points.

The team's defense has also been not pretty, giving up an absurd amount of high-danger chances resulting in high expected goals against (xGA) totals—the sixth-highest in the NHL at 5v5 at 2.85. However, after a rough first month, the man in the blue paint refuses to give up without a fight, and the defense in front of him continues to make him earn everything.

Saros has been a godsend for the 2022-23 Nashville Predators. They've played 39 games, and of those games, he has started 30. In those 30 starts, he has a .922 save percentage and 2.65 goals against average, the latter of which is more reflective of his defense than it is of him. The save percentage is 7th in the league, just ahead of Chris Anderson of the Buffalo Sabres, who has only played 15 games.

Speaking of his defense, let's compare the expected goals against (xGA) he's faced vs. the goals saved above expected (GSAx).

As a quick refresher for those who may not be fully in tune with the advanced analytics, expected goals against can be summed up as a stat that considers the probability of a shot going in, using the NHL's play-by-play data. Things taken into account include shot distance, time since the last shot, the kind of shot it is, etc.

GSAx is a pretty simple formula. It's the amount of xGA minus the actual goals against (GA). For example, if Saros were to face 3.00 xGA and give up two goals, he'd have 1.00 GSAx.

So, when looking at goals saved above expected, Saros has saved at least 1.00 goal above expected in 16 of his 31 starts and 1.5 goals above expected in 11. He has saved over 2.00 in seven games. Of course, he saved over 3.00 in his stellar 64-save performance against the Carolina Hurricanes and his recent shutout against the Ottawa Senators.

However, that just shows how good he has been. How bad has his defense been? Well, in 20 of his 30 starts, he has faced over 3.00 xGA; in 27 of his 31, he has faced over 2.50. It's also important to mention that in his start against the Seattle Kraken, where he allowed four goals on six shots, he was only allowed to face 0.59 xGA before being pulled, which brings down his overall total. Nonetheless, Saros' average xGA workload for 2022-23 has been 3.40.

To put that number into perspective, the Predators, with Saros in the net on average, are the 10th-worst defensive team in the entire NHL, and for a team that just began to find its scoring touch, that's not good enough.

To put the final nail in the coffin with his xGA, Saros sits first in the entire NHL at 105.5. The first playoff goalie in that stat is 8th overall, and it's Connor Hellebuyck with the Winnipeg Jets, who is consistently up at the top of that leaderboard year after year. His xGA? 92.57. 12.93 fewer expected goals against than Saros, which is a pretty wide margin.

The good news for the Predators is that they aren't getting burned on special teams. The power play remains bad, but their penalty kill has come through when it counts. It sits 13th in the league at 80.1%, but even though that might be slightly underwhelming, the kills have been timely, and Saros has been an enormous part of that. There are many times throughout an NHL season when you'll hear that the team's goalie has to be their best penalty killer, and in this case, it's true.

Saros, according to the chart below from Evolving-Hockey as well, is making up for a lot of the team's woes at even strength and when there is a man in the penalty box.

Juuse Saros Graph (29 games played)
Evolving-Hockey

Another graphic courtesy of Micah Blake McCurdy confirms just how bad the defense has been 5v5 in front of him. In case anyone is unsure what they see here, having a plus-11 is bad and all the red in front of the net represents how many chances teams are getting from those areas compared to how many they'd get against a league-average team.

Nashville Predators 5v5 Defense w/Saros (29 games played)
Micah Blake McCurdy (HockeyViz)

The Predators are giving up an absurd number of chances from high-danger areas, and Saros' workload reflects that. His record results from the offense in front of him not performing up to standard and the defense in front of him being not-so-stout.

Overall, the Predators have not been a good team this season. The defense has been poor for the most part, and the offense outside of Filip Forsberg and his line has been better but still not great. Saros is the glue keeping this team on what may or may not be the "right" course, and he should easily be in the Vezina conversation again.