It wasn’t supposed to go this way. Ever since Juuse Saros’ introduction to the NHL, most knew he was going to be the Nashville Predators’ succession plan after Pekka Rinne. Saros waited patiently behind Rinne, allowing for the Predators to make the transition slowly and smoothly.
Saros has seen more starts each season since entering the league. After the young Finn was awarded 27 starts last season – a career high to that point – there was the assumption we could see a 50/50 split between him and Rinne in 2019-20. But, this season, it was still supposed to be Rinne’s team. He was still supposed to be the guy. After allowing a career-worst eight goals in a game against the Edmonton Oilers on March 2, the former-Vezina winning goalie and long-time backbone of the team just doesn’t look that way anymore.
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It didn’t take long into the third period against the Oilers for it to become painful to watch. Saros coming on in relief seemed like it was more for the relief of fans’ emotions than anything.
“At that point, enough was enough,” John Hynes said following the game.
The Predators are in a very precarious position right now. They are flirting with missing the playoffs more often than threatening to qualify. So, the team is not in any position to take risks. Unless the Predators are playing back-to-back games, starting Rinne over Saros may be too risky now, especially considering the team’s position in the standings and the number of games left. Fans probably never envisioned the day when Rinne between the pipes may not be the Predators’ best option.
Rinne started this season just about as well as he could have. The 37-year-old played and started in nine games during the month of October, accumulating a 7-0-2 record, with a 2.19 goals-against average (GAA) and a .920 save percentage (SV%). After that stellar month, everything just seemed to turn.
A Tale of Two Seasons
As soon as November came the numbers were very un-Rinne like. During the second month of the NHL season, he saw action in just six games, amassing a 2-4-0 record, a 4.14 GAA and an .857 SV%. On top of all that, the Predators pulled him in three of those games. It was the first time that fans saw the understudy Saros receive more playing time than the two-time All-Star. The agile, 5-foot-11 goalie started 7 of the 10 games he played in November.
December didn’t fair too much better for Rinne either and the list goes on and on. Each month came and went while providing stats no more flattering than the last. Like most team sports, publicly singling out one individual after losses is virtually unheard of. Every post-game interview featured either players or coaches uttering something along the line of “we have to play better in front of Rinne” or “we have to help him out.”
Even after the loss to the Oilers – where let’s be honest – Rinne allowed some soft shots past him, Captain Roman Josi stood in front of the cameras and said, “I hate it. What we did in the third, we just left [Rinne] out to dry.” Josi then followed up by saying, “It’s just not good enough. We’ve got to be so much better. You hate it for Peks, for sure.” (from ‘What Predators said after Pekka Rinne allowed career-high 8 goals in loss to Oilers,’ The Tennessean, 03/02/2020).
Again, this is expected. For any player, let alone the captain to stand up and publicly blast the goaltender would be a story within itself. You win as a team and you lose as a team. But, those sentiments helped reinforce the belief that Rinne was still Rinne. It was the team play as a whole dragging down his numbers.
They say Father Time is undefeated. The established belief that Rinne’s numbers were not a true representation of his play may have tricked some into believing that time wasn’t ticking on his career. Naïveness made that realization hurt so much more during the Oilers’ five-goal onslaught in the third period.
Rinne finished the game against the Oilers with .742 SV%, allowing 8 goals on 31 shots. Look, even the best goalies in the world will have bad days, even in their primes. But, Rinne has allowed five goals or more seven times this season.
The Saros Era
Although Rinne has three shutouts to his name this year, it’s those games allowing five or more that make it too risky for the Predators to predominately play him over Saros for the remainder of the regular season and possibly beyond.
Ironically, it was Saros who struggled early in the season. While Rinne was posting Rinne-esque numbers, Saros was battling to keep his numbers from inflating too much. The 24-year-old played and started in four games during October, winning just one and allowing 3.99 goals-against, with a .872 SV%
However, those days seem to be behind Saros and the transition for him to be the starter may have been sped up.
Since the start of February, Saros has started in more than double the number of games Rinne has. The young goalie has played in 14 games during that span, starting 12. He has a GAA of just 2.18, while holding a .935 SV% and two shutouts.
Have we seen the last of vintage-Rinne on a consistent basis? It’s a difficult conversation to have, but nevertheless, one that needs to take place. Rinne has another year left on his current deal and it seems like a certainty that he will be on the lighter side of the starts come next season. Having a backup with Rinne’s experience and resume is far from the worst situation a team could be in.
Riding off into the sunset may be something that many athletes envision. You hear “I want to go out on my own terms” a lot in professional sports. Rinne has built quite the highlight reel during his 12-plus-year career and he is certainly a fan-favorite in Nashville. No one wants to remember him with a game that saw the opposition fill the net at will. But, if he isn’t switched to the backup role, coming in on a limited basis, games featuring five or more goals against may become far too familiar for fans’ comfort.
In 2018, Barry Trotz and the Washington Capitals started Philipp Grubauer for the first two games of their opening-round series, which came as a bit of a shock to some. Braden Holtby was the Capitals’ starter for the season, so to see anyone but him between the pipes in the biggest games of the year may have drawn mixed reactions. The Predators have made the playoffs five-straight seasons and Rinne has been consistent throughout it all.
If the Predators can find a way in to the postseason, the real question becomes who will lead the team out of the tunnel and start in net? Saros may give the Predators a better chance of success, but Rinne has more than earned the respect to get the playoff nod at least one more time. However, the Predators are in ‘win-now mode.’ If it comes down to Rinne or Saros in game one of this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, the sentimental decision may be the wrong approach.