Juuse Saros has made a case for the Vezina Trophy

The Preds’ goaltender is earning league-wide kudos. So where does he rank among the other Vezina front-runners?

Juuse Saros has played his way into the Vezina Trophy conversation. That’s an incredible feat considering how this season began for the Nashville Predators’ starting goaltender.

Just two months ago, the talk around Saros centered on his status as the team’s starter. A dismal 3-5-0 start combined with some “vintage” high-level play from Pekka Rinne had many wondering if Saros lost the spot he earned atop the depth chart last season.

Now Saros is the hottest goaltender in the NHL, thanks to a run of play that will go down as one of the best goaltending stretches in franchise history. Since returning from injury on March 18, Saros is 13-5-1 with an ungodly .942 save percentage. That’s by far the most of any goaltender who’s started at least 10 games in that span. Robin Lehner is the next closest at .938.

More importantly, Saros is straight up stealing wins. The way he’s keeping the Predators in games they have no business being in is reminiscent of Rinne’s run in the early 2010s. As a result, Saros has almost single-handedly willed Nashville back into a playoff race, which was a pipe dream just a handful of weeks ago.

Even in games he doesn’t win, Saros is often proving to be the best Predators player on the ice. Tuesday’s 49-save effort is a textbook example of that. He’s keeping the Predators locked in 2-1 or 3-2 games that could easily be 6-1 or 7-2.

That’s led Predators fans to make the case for Saros as a Vezina Trophy favorite, a sentiment that’s been echoed by Sports Illustrated and The Score, among others. Certainly there’s a case to be made that no goaltender has been as central to his team’s success as Saros has been to the Preds.

But is that enough for him to actually win the thing?

Stat-wise, Saros is among the NHL’s elite. His .926 save percentage ranks third among NHL goaltenders with a minimum of 20 starts, which is impressive considering he was in the .890s just a couple of months ago. If you figure Carolina’s Alex Nedeljkovic is out of the conversation based on his low number of starts, that leaves Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy as the only “Vezina contender” with a higher save percentage than Saros.

NHL Goaltending Leaders (Minimum 20 Starts)

Alex Nedeljkovic2013-4-330.93213.28
Andrei Vasilevskiy3829-8-140.92721.47
Juuse Saros3218-10-120.92617.33
Cam Talbot2717-6-320.92615.05
Marc-Andre Fleury3121-10-050.92615.16
Semyon Varlamov3117-9-450.92615.35

One number in particular that’s boosting Saros’s resume is his goals saved above average (GSAA in the table). In the most basic of terms, GSAA measures how many saves a goalie has made that a league-average goalie facing that number of shots wouldn’t have. Saros has 17.33, second in the NHL only to—again—Vasilevskiy.

But while Vasilevskiy has a slight edge stats-wise, including wins and shutouts, Saros is putting up his numbers with far less help; GSAA doesn’t take the threat level of the shots into consideration, and that’s where Saros has been outstanding. The Lightning defense is one of the best in league at keeping shot volume down. The Predators defense...uh...doesn’t do that.

That’s the crux of the argument for Saros. While Vasilevskiy is no doubt an important piece in Tampa Bay’s recent success, if you take him out of the lineup, the Tampa Bay Lightning are still packed with talent capable of winning games. In contrast, if you take Saros out the Preds’ lineup, Nashville isn’t anywhere close to where they are in the standings right now; in fact, several key players are probably playing elsewhere.

The evidence is there; Saros has proven he’s one of the best goaltenders in the league this year. Currently, he’s the best. But will it result in well-deserved hardware at the end of the season?

We’ll have to wait and see. But either way, Saros has earned his spot in the conversation.