For pretty much their entire existence the common theme around the Nashville Predators has always been they’ll go as far as their goaltending will take them, but the importance of a quality backup shouldn’t ever go overlooked.
Can these two feed off each other and give the Predators a decisive advantage over many other teams to return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2024? Absolutely, they can.
Lankinen was re-signed by the Nashville Predators front office this past offseason, avoiding the idea of having to shop for another unpredictable replacement to Saros, while also holding off on thrusting their highly-touted goalie prospect in Yaroslav Askarov up to part-time NHL duty.
It’s easy to overlook, but make no mistake that Lankinen is a vital piece to the team’s success going into Year 2 in Nashville.
Where Lankinen Ranks Among Other NHL Backup Goalies
Aside from a handful of goalies, one being Saros for the past two years, most teams have adopted the one-two punch in net. It makes you wonder if the Predators want to move more towards that same approach and lighten the load on Saros throughout the season.
Lankinen proved his worth as a backup goalie to Saros in 2022-23, finishing 17th in Goals Saved Above Expected with 8.6. An impressive number as a backup with only 19 games. Saros led the NHL in this metric with 46.7, undoubtedly being a main reason why the Predators didn’t completely fade out of the playoff race until Game No.80.
Looking around the NHL and other rock solid goalie duos, you have to start with the Boston Bruins. Throwing out the one-two punch of Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman is hard to beat. Both finished top-10 in Goals Saved Above Expected.
Even more impressive, Ullmark and Swayman finished in the top-three in GAA among goaltenders with at least 30 games. Ullmark put up a jaw dropping 1.89 GAA, while Swayman turned in a 2.27 GAA.
Swayman appeared in 18 more games than Lankinen, so not a fair comparison to backups when one was used considerably more than the other. Again, should the Predators be more like the Bruins and give Lankinen more opportunities in 2023-24?
We can’t bypass the defending Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights in this discussion, and while it’s unclear who the backup will actually be, it’s clear they have a top quality duo between the pipes with Adin Hill and Logan Thompson.
Golden Knights Head Coach Bruce Cassidy told Vegas Hockey Now that he doesn’t want either goaltender to start 60-plus games, and who starts more throughout the season and will be decided as things unfold.
Another example of a team, a Stanley Cup winner no less, adopting the strategy of having two goaltenders to throw at the opponent on any given night.
Is Lankinen trustworthy enough to take starts away from Saros? That’s a question Head Coach Andrew Brunette, who is getting most of the attention for revamping Nashville’s lackluster offense, to address once training camp wraps up.
Top Goalie Duos in the NHL
- Ullmark/Swayman (Bruins)
- Sorokin/Varlamov (Islanders)
- Hill/Thompson (Golden Knights)
- Saros/Lankinen (Preds)
- Shesterkin/Quick (Rangers)
Other teams I would mention as having among the best goalie combos in the NHL would be the New York Islanders with Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov, the Minnesota Wild with Filip Gustavsson and Marc-Andre Fleury, and the New York Rangers with Igor Shesterkin and an aging but still serviceable Jonathan Quick.
I’d be comfortable putting Lankinen among the top-5 best backups in the NHL heading into 2023-24, only behind Swayman, Varlamov and Fleury. So let’s say Lankinen is No.4, backing up Saros who is still a top-tier goalie with Vezina Trophy upside.
How the Nashville Predators should handle Saros & Lankinen
I fully anticipate Brunette to take a much different approach to Saros and Lankinen than former Head Coach John Hynes did. Keeping both goalies fresh throughout an 82-game grind is a must.
When crunch time comes and if the Predators are still in the hunt of the playoffs, and even competing near the top of the division, then you make adjustments to who is playing better at that time.
For instance, if you’re approaching around 20 games left and the playoffs are on the line, then you switch to leaning on Saros more heavily if indeed he’s in Vezina Trophy form and giving you the best chance to win.
However, at least to open the season through the first half, you have to find a balanced approach and keep both fresh. If Lankinen can carry over what he did in limited action last season, then this should translate to more rested goaltenders in February and March.
I’m thinking between 55 and 60 starts for Saros is doable as long as Lankinen doesn’t fall of as a liability when he does get his spot starts. Taking off the extra load and mental fatigue from Saros, even if it’s only five fewer starts, can make a big difference for starts in April with the postseason on the line.
The critics against this approach will argue that you can’t take the net away from who has been your team MVP over the past couple of years, and I totally understand that. But when you have a quality backup like Lankinen looks to be, you have to find a better balance.
Every hero needs a good sidekick, and Lankinen can be that for Saros and give the Nashville Predators much more sustained success in the grind for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.