Juuse Saros; To Play, Or Not To Play

(Photo Credit: Mark Newman)

The Milwaukee Admirals are nearly through the opening two months of the 2017-18 season. They hold a 10-8-0-0 record (20 points, 0.556 points percentage) and are currently fourth in the Central Division and eighth in the Western Conference standings. The Admirals might have started off the season winning four straight games but they have only won consecutive games on one occasion since then – and that came this past week in a shootout and overtime win. It has been a stop-start, lose-win vortex in which the Admirals can’t really get on a roll.

Though, despite this up-and-down start, there has been a real constant throughout the Admirals season: Anders Lindbäck. The 29-year old from Gävle, Sweden has been brilliant from the start of the season and has been the best and most consistent player in Milwaukee by a good margin.

A season ago he only had a PTO contract with the Ontario Reign to get himself going and found himself needing to return back to the Swedish ranks of hockey after 4 games in the AHL. Come one-year later he has made 14 starts in the AHL and has a 2.35 goals against average, 0.923 save percentage, and shutout to his name. Plus, Lindbäck is currently tied with Garret Sparks of the Toronto Marlies for the most wins by a goaltender (10) in the entire league.

It begs the question. Why isn’t Lindbäck the goaltender of choice right now to be the back-up goaltender of the Nashville Predators?

Lindbäck has produced two months of solid, consistent, and pretty much mistake-free work in net with the Admirals in the AHL. My gosh, he has played the puck so well for the Admirals that he actually has recorded more assists (3) than Andrew O’Brien, Fred Allard, Cody Bass, Stephen Perfetto, Jimmy Oligny, or Joonas Lyytinen have points of offense. And, if Lindbäck gets one more assist, he’s one the same page as Justin Kirkland. It’s not that he is actively working stretch passes -but- that is the veteran poise, puckhandling, and work around his own net that he has been providing the Admirals and that confidence can be infectious.

(Photo Credit: Cleveland Monsters)

When looking up top at the Predators you are seeing Pekka Rinne playing like always: he is really, really good. And, as a result, he is also deservedly getting as many starts in net as possible while he is doing so well. 18 starts from 23 games with 13 wins, 2.31 goals against average, 0.927 save percentage, and 2 shutouts. Rinne has been solid to start this season for the Predators. Juuse Saros, on the other hand, has only played 5 games in the NHL this season and has a 3.70 goals against average, 0.870 save percentage, and only a single win to show for his limited time in net. He was thrust into the net during a rough stretch for the Admirals on the road against the Cleveland Monsters, lost both games he played, and displayed similar numbers: 3.60 goals against average and 0.865 save percentage. He isn’t entirely forcing his way into getting any further net time than he currently is. It wouldn’t necessarily feel right to push Rinne -in his current form- aside for the hope that more playing time in an NHL role for Saros will get both operating on a high level. It’s a developmental situation that has funneled itself into this box. And it feels like so much more could be done than where everything now sits.

Saros is 22-years old and in his third season of playing professional hockey in North America. Since making the leap to this side of the pond he has yet to officially be given the reigns at any one stop as “the man” in net. In fact, his most consistent platform to play hockey and settle in was that debut season of 2015-16 in the AHL where he made 38 starts, earned 29 wins, and had a 2.24 goals against average, 0.920 save percentage, and 4 shutouts. That season was split with Marek Mazanec. The next season the Predators decided it best to not sign a permanent back-up and promoted Mazanec to the role. That didn’t work out. Mazanec and Saros would flip-flop until January. And Saros has been in that back-up role behind Rinne ever since.

(Photo Credit: Milwaukee Admirals)

What I like to bring up with Saros is that constant reminder of his age and his current state along his developmental process. 22-years old. This is his third season here state-side after playing two full-seasons of senior team hockey with HPK (Liiga). When Rinne was 22-years old he was making his debut state-side and played for the Admirals in the AHL where he would feature all the way towards the 2006 AHL Calder Cup Finals. In Rinne’s third professional season in North America he hadn’t fully progressed to the Predators or the NHL on a full-time basis just yet. Rinne’s third-season of North American pro hockey was played in the AHL, in Milwaukee, and he played 65 games in net for the Admirals. That is experience. That is numerous points of emphasis where mistakes are being made and learned from. And it is the time spent battling in Milwaukee in the AHL that is what has made him all that much better in the long run as an NHL goaltender in Nashville. He played. He learned. And he progressed. Saros isn’t going to be doing that in the current role he is stuck in right now.

Yesterday was an example of the sort of games that Saros is getting thrown into. He has made 5 starts for the Predators. He has made a pair of starts on the back-end of a two-in-two. He has also now made a pair of starts on the road which featured a 12:00 PM CST start time. So, it isn’t just the frequency in which he is getting time in net but also the awkwardness of just how he is getting thrown into the fire to play. I wouldn’t say that they are setting Saros up to fail but they certainly aren’t putting him in a light to succeed as best as he could under different circumstances.

(Photo Credit: Scott Paulus)

What the Predators did this off-season, not unlike last Summer, was take a calculated risk on the goaltending depth. They did give themselves a far deeper mix of options this season around Saros. There was the more veteran minded goaltender in Lindbäck but there was also Matt O’Connor and Jake Paterson who could be seen as great projects that could benefit from a change of scenery in a new organization. O’Connor has unfortunately missed time early this season due to a lower-body injury. Paterson has yet to make it into an AHL game at this point in time. Meanwhile, Lindbäck has proven to be a low risk, high reward gamble that has already proven to have been a success two months into the season. It is on an AHL basis but it is on a league leading variety basis. He’s been great. And that, combined with past history playing in the NHL for the Predators and alongside Rinne, provides a much more relaxed feeling for the prospect of making a mid-season switch rather than how it all felt a season ago. Lindbäck hasn’t been put in net at all for the Predators, yet. But it feels like the time to test those waters should be soon. In fact, it might have been worth the attempt to have given him a start two weeks ago when they did the switch between himself and Saros in order to see if Lindbäck’s AHL form could translate directly back into NHL success.

Where does that the leave Saros? Is his next start for the Predators going to be on 14 December? It is the second half of a two-in-two. What about 30 December? Because that is also the second half of a two-in-two. January is a wash: there isn’t a set of games back-to-back or even an afternoon start time. You have to look to February for the next double-dip or March for the next afternoon game that Saros could step into.

(Photo Credit: Scott Paulus)

Rinne right now is playing so gosh darn good. Could he benefit from getting rest? Could that added time sitting on the bench every once and awhile help keep him that extra bit more fresh and alive for a deep playoff run such as last season? Sure. Rinne is 35-years old. He is an incredible and professional athlete but you can’t always outwork the body clock. Someone should get the start every here and there. But that someone shouldn’t be a 22-year old that should be learning and developing to be that next “guy” for Nashville. Saros isn’t going to do that where and how he is being utilized right now. Lindbäck offers a chance for the entire organization to check all the necessary boxes for success in the present and future. He doesn’t need to carry the load for Nashville. He just needs to be operating on what Saros is being taxed with right now. Should any sort of an injury take place to Rinne? That’s when you get to take someone like Saros, fresh and sharp after having logged lots of minutes in net within the AHL, and push him to the forefront of playing far more consistently in an NHL spotlight. If the biggest risk to all of this is that Lindbäck requires waivers to go back from the NHL to the AHL and the Predators need to make a switch again because of how well Saros has been playing? With all due respect to fans in Milwaukee – that’s not that big of a risk to the grand scheme of the parent club achieving success. That’s the biggest risk to that switch actually happening. Were Lindbäck to go up and not do as well? He wouldn’t really be among the more desirable waiver wire pick-ups would he? There are for more reasons for that swap taking place being an all-around benefit that a now and later hindrance.

Saros is already a good one. Even someone such as myself can nearly forget just how young he is because of how long I heard his name talked-up in prospect circles since he was selected by the Predators in the fourth round of the 2013 NHL Draft. Him being in the NHL, playing, and playing as well as he has already shown that he is capable of is evidence of what the future holds for himself and the Predators. But right now he is on a plateau and looking at a mountain. That mountain is Rinne. And it still isn’t going anywhere nor getting shorter. Saros needs to work his own developmental process and keep climbing. There is no passing of the torch after this season. Saros needs to play. And it just isn’t going to happen in the NHL to the magnitude that it could otherwise have long-term should he go to the AHL.

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