Hype is a gift and a curse. There isn’t hype without a particular reason to get excited over a prospect. And, naturally, with the right amount of hype the ingredients can exist for that hype to never be met. Juuse Saros is a goaltending prospect that entered the North American pro hockey scene a year ago with a whirlwind of hype behind him and has been showing time and time again that the hype comes with great reason: he’s brilliant.
The long term planning that takes place in the organization can really come in waves when it comes to forwards or defenseman. As for goaltending you only have so many in play at a given time before you kick one out and look for a successor to join that prospect talent pool. Having a Pekka Rinne atop that totem pole is fantastic, because it is, but even he in his draft class wasn’t the first goaltender selected by the Predators. Of the eleven draft picks the Predators had in the 2004 NHL Draft the team selected Kyle Moir in the fifth round as their fourth selection while Rinne was drafted in the eighth round as the tenth selection. One of those two turned out to be a franchise building block. And the other was named Kyle.
With a goaltender in Rinne the Predators have had stability between the pipes for what is now the ninth season where he’s expected to be “the man” in net. That isn’t a luxury a lot of teams get to say. And when looking at the Predators draft history at the goaltending position ever since Rinne’s draft year – you kind of understand why.
Since the 2005 NHL Draft the Predators goaltending selections in the draft have been: Mark Dekanich (5th Round in 2006), Jeremy Smith (2nd Round in 2007), Atte Engren (7th Round in 2007), Chet Pickard (1st Round in 2008), Anders Lindbäck (7th Round in 2008), Magnus Hellberg (2nd Round in 2011), Marek Mazanec (6th Round in 2012), Juuse Saros (4th Round in 2013), Janne Juvonen (7th Round in 2013), Karel Vejmelka (5th Round in 2015), Evan Smith (7th Round in 2015), and Konstantin Volkov (6th Round in 2016).
Obviously the latter of the names are your current wee-nippers in the early stages of their developmental process but for much of the rest it is long done and dusted. And out of the names above who actually truly manifested into something the likes of a Rinne or to be his battery-mate in Nashville? The closest two would be Lindbäck and Mazanec. The rest just never really went to plan – or are hoping to be on the path to.
It’s this long and twisty path that gets us to the present and a present in which Rinne is a soon to be 34-year old. How many more seasons does he have in the tank where he is the reliable and dependable option as “the man” in net? It is that such question that makes Saros and his arrival all the more exciting.
In the off-season of 2015 it became clear that Saros was getting ready for his first pro season in North America. The question then was simple. Who is the odd-man out: Hellberg or Mazanec? That answer became Hellberg who the Predators traded to the New York Rangers and Saros had his spot opened up to play in the AHL as a 20-year old rookie. He entered having already played two full-seasons of pro hockey in his native Finland with HPK where he logged 91 games. As an 18-year old rookie in SM-Liiga for HPK he threw down a 1.76 goals against average and 0.923 save percentage in 44 games – as an 18-year old. That is where the hype train started and, with him and his hype effectively giving Hellberg the boot, the expectations of the 2015-16 season were incredibly high.
When I met Saros that opening Training Camp in Milwaukee ahead of last season it became very clear that he was in fact a special sort of player and person. Similar to Colton Sissons when he arrived out of Kelowna you just didn’t get the feeling like Saros’ age was what it was for how he conducts himself. His professionalism off the ice translates to the ice. And his high level work ethic made the transition from Europe to North America look seamless. In his first season in North America as a member of the Milwaukee Admirals in the AHL he split the deck with Mazanec in terms of starts. Both goaltenders had 38 starts, each. The two pushed one another incredibly hard to get time in net and that friendly rivalry meant for sharp seasons for all parties.
When it comes to European to North American transitions, especially at the AHL level, I get to see a lot of kinks and mistakes made. It makes sense to see that though. The rink is smaller. The game is faster. And, especially in net, the placement of rebounds and teams shooting to setup for rebound opportunities isn’t so much what you see in the European style game. Everyone can go through the process differently but the adjustment period exists whether it be fast, slow, or never adjusting to it at all.
So, with that in mind, let’s look at the last three goalies that the Admirals have featured as European goaltenders making their North American debuts at the AHL level: Hellberg, Mazanec, and Saros.
Hellberg: 39 GP, 22-13-0-0 record, 2107 minutes, 2.14 GAA, 0.924 SV%, 6 SO
Maz: 31 GP, 18-10-0-3 record, 1866 minutes, 2.44 GAA, 0.914 SV%, 0 SO
Saros: 38 GP, 29-8-0-0 record, 2248 minutes, 2.24 GAA, 0.920 SV%, 4 SO
Hellberg’s debut season was rather remarkable, especially the end to his 2012-13 AHL season, but the minutes played and volume of wins favor Saros as a guy who was leaned on and responded. And that’s coming from him when he was 20-years old – a year younger than Hellberg and Mazanec’s AHL rookie season.
What impressed me more than anything you’d find simply by the numbers a season ago for Saros was his reliability. Never once did he look phased or overwhelmed by the North American pro style game. If the adaptation process existed for him it was a matter of a blink and it was over. He looked and played the part of, well, his counterpart last season -Mazanec- who had already logged three pro seasons with the Admirals to get to that point in his developmental process. Saros didn’t have a gaffe such as Hellberg’s rookie season letting in a shot that was aimed as a dump in for a line change that turned into a goal. Saros didn’t have episodes of deer in headlights that Mazanec would have in spurts in his first two pro seasons. Saros didn’t have any of that. He looked, played, and acted as if he had done it all before when in fact it was his first rodeo.
When Saros received the call to get his NHL debut last season for the Predators he didn’t get the result he would have liked. The team lost 4-1 to the Buffalo Sabres while Saros stopped 20/23 with the Sabres cashing in twice on a power-play stemming from a major penalty. The result didn’t go his way but the experience was taken in. The rush of the NHL debut ended. And then came a certain food poisoning outbreak that allowed for Saros to get a second crack at it all over again this past Saturday. All he did was stop 34/35 shots on goal against the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and, surprise-surprise, look comfortable while doing it en route to his first career NHL win.
Nothing actually surprises me anymore when it comes to Saros. When he’s tabbed as the goaltender for an Admirals game, even as early as mid-way through last season, there was a calmness in the air knowing he was the last line of defense on the night. He’s 21-years old right now and still very much absorbing a ton that the North American game has to offer. It’s never mattered that he’s less than six-feet tall because his game preparation, compete level, and lateral quickness more than account for any issue that size might have. The further he gets pushed up the ladder the faster the game is going to get. His ability to adapt quickly, as evidenced Saturday night in Nashville, shows just why the hype is what it is for him.
It’s not all that clear how the Predators play Saros in the 2017-18 season but the objective for this year is. He is the Admirals anchor this season. He will log a ton of games, minutes, high-pressure situations, and get a chance to be “the man” for a team looking to win a Calder Cup for the first time since 2004. The amount of experience that can be absorbed and learned from this season for Saros is going to be important to take in. Because it might just set him on the path that another Finnish netminder took right out of Milwaukee.
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