You need strong goaltending to go deep into the playoffs. The Nashville Predators have to decide which one of theirs gives them the best chance.
We’ve had this debate several times over the past couple of years with the Nashville Predators. This franchise has always survived off of strong, and sometimes all-time great, goaltending. Pekka Rinne is perhaps the best Predator in franchise history, but Father Time always catches up eventually.
You have Juuse Saros waiting patiently to become the primary starting goaltender. You can’t be shuffling goaltenders in the playoffs, so now the question is does on-ice performance outweigh the entire body of work? In other words, Rinne has the playoffs experience. He has the illustrious career that includes a Vezina Trophy. However, Saros is the future of the franchise and has looked better overall than Rinne this season. But how much better? Enough to warrant such a big change to the lineup this late in the season?
The Predators have other more glaring problems to deal with other than what to do with their goaltenders. Depth scoring, slow starts in the first period and the power play are all areas that scare me more than which goaltender starts in Game 1.
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Both Rinne and Saros are more than capable of getting hot at the right time and carrying this team back to a Stanley Cup Final. However, there’s a healthy debate on if Peter Laviolette should make the switch to Saros for the opening round of the playoffs.
Diving into their numbers
You have to dive deeper than just simple save percentage and goals against average. If you want to start with these most basic of numbers, Rinne and Saros are very close in both areas. High-danger save percentage is an important one to keep tabs on because it shows how they are performing when the defense breaks down and a spectacular save is usually needed. We’ve seen Rinne do this countless times in his career, but he has dipped in this area somewhat. However, his high-danger save percentage has reached .871, per NaturalStatTrick. Not a terrible number by any means.
When we look at Saros in this same area, his save percentage in high danger chances has sunk to .852, lower than Rinne’s. With that said, Saros has played more quality opponents over his last five games, with wins over San Jose and Minnesota. He also played well enough to beat St.Louis at the end of February, giving up just one goal.
Another glaring stat for me is goals saved above average, or GSAA. This measures the amount of saves the goaltender makes over what the average goaltender would make. Rinne finished at 27 above the average last season, a big factor into winning the Vezina. He’s much lower this season at 5.12, but he has shown improvement recently. Saros, on the other hand, has slightly dipped below Rinne’s number at 4.35. They’re basically mirror images of each other in this area, so there’s no reason to split hairs. I do believe that these numbers show that both goaltenders are showing at least mild improvement as the playoffs approach.
What’s the right move for the playoffs?
We’re all excited and giddy to see Saros eventually take over the helm. Rinne has definitely looked ordinary at times, giving up goals we’re accustomed to seeing him stop. He went through some rocky times, as did the entire team. Yet somehow the team still has a shot at the Central Division title. Even if they don’t catch Winnipeg in the division, they should get home-ice advantage in the first round.
The time isn’t now to make a dramatic goaltender change to Saros. Rinne’s play isn’t nearly bad enough to warrant such a risky shake-up to the lineup. If Rinne was continuing to slide backward at a scary rate, then this would be a different story. However, that’s just not the case. Saros and Rinne have very similar numbers in many categories that make this decision an easy one for me. You stick with Rinne, the man who is the foundation of why the Predators have become one of the elite franchises of the NHL. This isn’t a situation where the franchise is keeping a washed-up veteran around too long because of his history. Rinne is still more than capable of carrying the Predators deep into the playoffs. again.
This offseason will be a time to make a change if needed, and I feel that is likely. Roles between Rinne and Saros could easily reverse in 2019-20. Meaning Saros getting the bulk of the starts is very conceivable. That would be a much easier transition than making this switch just shy of the playoffs, putting all of the pressure you can imagine on the shoulders of Saros. It just doesn’t make sense to me.
As the Predators continue to build chemistry with the newer players getting more comfortable, I believe the team as a whole will start playing better in front of their goaltenders. I can’t remember a worse season from the Predators in terms of team defense than what I have seen this season. We can’t lean on the injury excuse anymore. This team has to get it together as a unit, and either Rinne or Saros will be good enough to get this team back to a Stanley Cup Final. Rinne is the right call to stay in the crease at the start of the playoffs.