With the 11th pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, the Nashville Predators chose goaltender Iaroslav Askarov. For goaltender Juuse Saros, things may have gotten complicated.
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With the recent drafting of Iaroslav Askarov, the elevated play of prospect Connor Ingram, and Rinne’s possible retirement looming after next season, Saros’ future with the Predators is all on his shoulders.
To the outsider, the drafting of Askarov indicates that Predators’ management may not be sold on Saros as their franchise goaltender.
Others could look at the draft situation and see that instead of drafting a player they needed, the Predators took the best available player on the board.
This could mean, though highly unlikely, that Askarov could be nothing more than a potential trade piece to be used down the road as General Manager David Poile sees fit.
That would be playing the long game and a shrewd move by Poile, which he’s known for doing from time to time.
The first scenario is likely the case. Saros may be on notice. You could potentially lump Ingram in that category as well.
With Ingram in the pipeline to eventually play backup to Saros and inevitably take the starting job, the arrival of an elite goaltender in Askarov could derail those plans. There’s a lot that will be sorted out in 2021 just based on Saros’ play alone.
Last Season Was Night and Day
If you were to take a step back to December of last season and suggest that Saros would be the top goaltender for the Predators for the 2020-21 season, you would be a laughing stock.
Saros had a rough first half of the season. In his 20 starts, only five were wins. This was not a good look for a future franchise goaltender, although it wasn’t all his fault. The team had defensive weaknesses all over, and also on special teams.
You had a shaky coaching situation as well with Peter Laviolette, who was eventually let go in early January.
The first half of the season was a rocky one for the Predators. Laviolette was putting his line combinations in a blender and hoping for the best. Saros and Rinne were playing behind an inconsistent team. Rinne suffered the brunt of the abuse with some lopsided losses.
After Laviolette was relieved of duty and head coach John Hynes took over, Saros began to gain confidence as Rinne went the opposite direction.
Of those 20 starts for Saros, eight were losses. Not great, but a step in the right direction. The memorable games were the consecutive shutouts against Dallas and a win against Stanley Cup champion, St. Louis Blues.
Alternately, Rinne had 16 starts with only six wins. The team in front was better at this point, but Rinne still had his troubles in the net.
Pandemic And The Playoffs
Before the pandemic hit, there was no doubt who would be the starting goaltender for the playoffs and beyond. Saros was on fire and was one of the best goaltenders in the league at the time. Once the season was paused and time passed, that sentiment began to cool.
The months passed, and once the pre-playoff training camp started, the big question became who would start in net. While we heard varying reports from training camp, it appeared that Saros would get the nod at least for the first game.
The first game start for Saros turned into a starting job for the Predators entire, albeit brief, playoff run.
Saros did pick up his first playoff win, a high point of the Predators Stanley Cup Qualifier appearance. That would prove to be one of only a handful of good moments for the team.
Old habits crept back in, and Saros once again found himself with an inconsistent team in front of him. Mix that in with some dumb puck luck and a few bad misses, Saros’ playoff debut was thwarted.
Next Season And Beyond
Saros seems to be stuck in a very awkward place and time. None of us know how he would’ve performed had last season not been shortened. We also don’t know how he would’ve performed last season and in the playoffs had a better team been in front of him.
Hopefully, both Saros and Rinne will reap the rewards of a team moving towards a more defensive mindset.
Then there is the impending arrival of the expansion Seattle Kraken. Which goaltender will the Predators protect in the upcoming NHL expansion draft before the 2021-22 season? Do they protect Saros if he is to be the future franchise goaltender hoping that Seattle won’t pick an aging veteran like Rinne, who is so close to retirement?
There has also been the question of Saros’ size. Of all of the Predators’ goaltenders and prospects, Saros is the shortest at 5’11”. The next shortest is Ingram at 6’2″. Some believe that Saros’ size hampers his ability to move towards being an elite goaltender.
Finally, Askarov is only two years away from making an NHL debut due to his contract with the KHL. If everything were to hold and Rinne was to retire, Saros would have a full year without his mentor to make a case for keeping his starting spot. Provided he holds that spot for the entirety of 2021.
Saros is also due to be a restricted free agent after next season.
For these reasons alone, next season is the most crucial of Saros’ career. If he has aspirations of having a Rinne-like career in Nashville, then his time is now.
Saros will undoubtedly be the starter next season. I expect that he and Rinne will split the starts 60/40. Hopefully, that scenario will last throughout what is shaping up to be a shortened NHL season.
If things go south and Saros gets off to a bad start, we will see Rinne’s number of starts rise considerably and quickly. That will most likely mean the Predators are struggling in the standings and on their way to missing the playoffs.
It seems like few have confidence in Saros’ ability to be the undisputed starting goaltender. Perhaps it’s because we are getting cold feet with Rinne’s career winding down.
Saros will once again have to prove himself when training camp and the regular season finally gets rolling. The question will be whether or not he has the skill and fortitude to prove everyone wrong.