If you were reading the selection for Roundtable’s 2015-16 Rookie of the Year Award and thinking, “I wonder if Juuse Saros will win Goalie of the Year too,” you were right! Roundtable’s Goalie of the Year for the 2015-16 Season is in fact going to be Saros. I know, this one is a little less anticlimactic and story driven considering you already received so much on Saros in that previous award.
Rather than leave this award blank, referring again and again to read that Rookie of the Year write-up, allow me to take another approach to Saros’ excellent 2015-16 season and the road ahead for him as well as comment on the season that was for Marek Mazanec.
Dragging you all to the way back when, and the long-long ago (the end of the 2014-15 season where the Milwaukee Admirals failed to make the playoffs for the first time since their debut season in the AHL), I had a really good conversation with Magnus Hellberg in regards to the transition of playing in goal in Europe to North America.
“People go so much harder to the net here. They actually shoot more for rebounds. You have to think where you put the rebounds. You have to fight through a lot more traffic than you have to do at home. Obviously the ice is much bigger home so they have more time and they maybe skate around and hold the puck more but here it’s more like a straight game where people put the puck to the net and just go hard. It took awhile to managed some of the aspects of that.” ~Magnus Hellberg
Now, everyone is unique and handles this transition their own way. No two players are truly alike in that respect. In recent memory of Admirals who made the switch from Europe to North America there have been some not so terrific results: Atte Engren, Jani Lajunen, Patrick Cehlin, Joonas Rask, Mikko Vainonen, Johan Alm, and Kristian Näkyvä. That’s not to say that the Nashville Predators were wrong to bring these talents in. It’s not to say that they continued to perform erratically in Europe. Some players are just far better suited to the European game and that extends to North American players as well, Stevie Moses.
The goaltending and defensive positions are where this transition stands out when players are struggling to adapt. It’s far easier to expose those two positions when a player is rattled by pace, lateral movement, and more rugged “in your face” play associated with the North American game. When it’s good, it’s normal. When it’s bad, whoa man is it bad to watch.
To have a general idea of what both of those mean all you need to do is think about Mazanec’s journey these past three-seasons. He is fully capable of being lights out but, in his earlier seasons, he was also fully capable of some serious deer in headlights goaltending. Here’s the thing though, because as I said it is an entirely individualized experience, that was his learning and developmental process. This past season was Mazanec’s best wire-to-wire season. The numbers may not 100% back that up, the last game of the regular season when the team in front of him took the night off didn’t help, but there wasn’t one game where Mazanec switched off or struggled. He was locked in this season at a time when the real between the ears battle was going on with a high level prospect in Saros bumping his ol’ battery-mate Hellberg and a potential back-up role in Nashville in 2016-17 a possibility with a solid campaign of work. He did that. He did that in his third full-season of North American hockey.
If there was any true standout element to Saros’ debut season to North America it was that he displayed that from his first start of the season to the end. He is 20-years old and plays with the hockey mind of someone who has been at this for quite some time. What will Saros be like once he starts to really get comfortable with the North American game? His rookie season stat-line was: 38 appearances (all starts) with a 29-8-0-0 record, 2.24 goals against average, 0.920 save percentage, 4 shutouts, and he stopped all 13 shootout attempts he faced to earn the Admirals 4 wins with the game squarely on him in net. That is his baseline and foundation for the years to come. It is tremendous to think about the possibilities for Saros moving forward.
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