It’s still hard to believe that the Nashville Predators are one win — or a Dallas Stars loss — away from clinching a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. How did they get here? Many have analyzed the improved facets of the game that has given them this opportunity. Their power play, penalty kill, 5v5 play and certain lines stepping up, have all been attributed to the turnaround.
But, can we be really honest? There’s one main reason that the Predators are staring this “win and you’re in” scenario in the face. It simply comes down to Juuse Saros. He’s the reason they are where they are. If it wasn’t for him, all the other improvements would have been for nothing. As a result, it’s not just given the Predators a golden opportunity — pardon the pun — it’s also categorically placed Saros in the Vezina Trophy conversation.
Once the Predators backup, getting limited work behind Pekka Rinne, Saros was given his opportunity to take the starting role at the beginning of the season. However, just like the team’s overall performance, the results were not great.
Through his first 10 starts, the goalie they call “Juice” managed just four wins, his save percentage (SV%) was below .900 and his goals-against average (GAA) was above three. Nothing seemed to be working in Nashville. The players and both goalies were all struggling. The confidence to score and prevent goals must have been at an all-time low.
As the season continued, the stats remained less than impressive, and many people had begun to write the Predators’ season off. But then came March — the middle of the month if we really try to pinpoint the revitalization. The team began to win more than they lost, and for the first time all season, they were stringing winning streaks together. It was somewhat miraculous to see. Casual fans and general critics of the sport had to sit up and take notice of what the Predators were doing.
Maybe head coach John Hynes had finally gotten his message across to the players. Maybe his system was finally being understood in the locker room. But there’s no doubt it was the 26-year-old who wears those golden pads, who was the main reason they were able to get on this roll, and he’s the reason they’ve been able to stay on it, too.
It Must Be the Juice
We discussed Saros’ stats from the beginning of the season till the middle of March. Well, now it’s time to make his case. Since March 17, the young netminder leads the league in wins with 15. He’s also the best in the league when it comes to the number of games started recording a SV% better than .900, registering 17. Then there’s the ultimate goalie flex, the shutout. Using the same time span, Saros has blanked the opposition three times, which is the second-most in the league, behind only the New Islanders’ Semyon Varlamov, who has four perfect games.
The Predators have been fighting an uphill battle since the midpoint of the season. They put themselves in such a deep hole that they were never even supposed to have a shot at making the playoffs — but here they are. Arguably, they’ve been playing playoff hockey for the entire back half of this campaign. The games have felt like must wins and Saros has been trusted to lead them to those crucial victories. No matter the opponent, the Predators goaltender gives them their best shot at winning.
His SV% has skyrocketed since March 17 — in fact, among goalies with 10 or more starts, Saros leads the league in that category. It’s certainly been a good stretch for him. However, to show how well he’s played, lets look at his percentage for the whole season. Remember, through the first two months of the year, Saros’ SV% was less than .900. He wasn’t even in the league’s top-35. However, now the Predators’ MVP owns the fourth-best percentage among goalies with 15 or more starts.
Now, if you’re thinking that maybe Saros is cleaning up with a bunch of easy saves, or perhaps the Predators’ system surrenders many shots, but they’re all from the outside, well you’d be wrong. The team has been bailed out by their netminder more than their fair share.
Again, since March 17, Saros has the NHL’s best high-danger SV% during 5v5 play and among goalies who have logged 650 minutes or more. When it comes to play during all strengths, the young Finn owns the second-best SV% among goalies who have 650 minutes of play to their season’s resume.
Just as we looked at the greater picture with his SV% — that being the whole season — we can do that with his high-danger SV%, too, and it’s still just as impressive. Despite the shaky start the team as a whole experienced to start the year, putting everyone’s numbers in the basement, Saros still has the fourth-best 5v5 high-danger SV% among those who have skated in 650 minutes or more of game play.
The Predators may wind up clinching that final playoff spot, but what will their odds look like when they have to matchup against the Carolina Hurricanes? Probably not great because at the end of the day, they’re still seen as an average team at best, and maybe that’s a fair criticism. However, the same cannot be said about their star goalie.
Let us look at goals saved above average (GSAA). This basically takes a particular netminder – in this case, Saros – and compares them to the “average goalie,” using the league’s average save percentage with the number of shots a goalie has faced. There is a formula required, but for the non-math folk, it’s essentially a plus/minus for goalies compared to the NHL average. In other words, how many goals has a goaltender saved compared to an average goalie facing the same workload.
This is another category that during 5v5 play Saros leads, with a plus-23.61. When it comes to all strengths of play, he sits third in the league, but holds the top spot since March 17 and it’s not even close. Saros has a GSAA of plus-22.78 since March 17, the next closest goaltender — Thomas Greiss — owns a plus-12.70.
The accomplishments go on and on. High-danger GSAA? Yep, Saros is among the best there too. According to Natural Stat Trick, he has the third-highest high-danger GSAA during 5v5 play. And he actually leads that category during both 5v5 and all strengths of play since March 17.
Hockey is a team sport, and some may argue that the individual stats are nice, but they mean very little if a team isn’t successful as a whole. Well, we touched on it briefly earlier, mentioning that Saros leads the league in wins since the middle of March.
However, to get a balanced argument, it may only be fair to examine the team’s performance with Saros in net from the beginning of the season to this point. Taking off such filters reveals that Saros does not lead the league in victories, in fact, he’s sixth. But remembering how the Predators stumbled out of the blocks, Saros’ numbers are more than respectable.
Saros Versus the Field
To gain better perspective, it may also help to look at the goalies who sit above him in the wins column. The five goalies are: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Philipp Grubauer, Tristan Jarry, Marc-Andre Fleury and Connor Hellebuyck. To put it another way, they’re goaltenders who play for: the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Colorado Avalanche, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Vegas Golden Knights, and the Winnipeg Jets. Three of those five are flat out contenders and the other two, the Penguins and Jets, well you could make a strong case for them, too.
The point is, sure Vasilevskiy has a double-digit lead over Saros in the wins department, but he also plays for a team that is extremely skilled when it comes to scoring goals. They’re a league-wide, top-5 team in goals for per game. So, although he’s an elite level talent — no one can deny that — his wins may come a little easier than Saros’ do. Vasilevskiy has so much run support that even during his off nights he stands a good chance of still picking up the victory. Can you imagine the results for contests where Saros isn’t on his game? The odds of the Predators winning are drastically lower than the Lightning’s, that’s for sure.
Dan Rosen, a senior writer at NHL.com, wrote that Varlamov was his MassMutual East Division’s Vezina leader.
“He is the difference right now for the Islanders, playing extremely well behind a team that is playing well in front of him, Rosen explained. “He’s making the saves he’s supposed to make and, of late, all the saves on tough chances against too. He’s been the steadiest goalie in the East all season.”
Staff writer, Mike G. Morreale picked Hellebuyck for the Scotia North Division because, “His ability to bounce back after a bad game is one reason he’s gained the trust of his teammates night in and night out.”
Those are both good rationales for picking a leader in the race for the accolade. Well, Saros has registered all those numbers we just outlined and since March 17, he has completed all 22 games he has started. Not to sound like a broken record, but the 22 complete games is another NHL high during that span. How’s that for steady?
As for gaining trust of teammates, no one has done that more than Saros. The Predators are not perfect — far from it really — and as such they’ve allowed several odd-man rushes and breakaways. More often than not, Saros steps up and erases those mistakes. There is an air of confidence when he’s back there and the players can feed off of it, you can see it in their game. The Predators can play a little more aggressive, knowing that small errors are wiped clean by Saros.
The way Saros is playing, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to try and make a case for him contending for the Hart Memorial Trophy. After all, it’s awarded to the “player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team.” That screams Saros.
Unfortunately, there’s a guy named Connor McDavid who is doing things that, let’s be honest, should be impossible during a shortened, 56-game season. To be fair, you have to reward historically great seasons, even if you believe Saros means more to the Predators’ success than McDavid does to the Edmonton Oilers’.
If Saros is playing so well and is so instrumental to the Predators that a case to win the Hart Memorial Trophy can be made, it more than qualifies him for the Vezina Trophy. Pair that with the numbers explained above and the position he’s put his team in, you better believe that he has the resume to be crowned “the goalkeeper adjudged to be the best at this position.”