Predators' Juuse Saros has earned starting role over Pekka Rinne

Thomas Williams
Hockey writer

Pekka Rinne has been the starting goaltender for every fond memory the Nashville Predators have had, but he’s finding tough competition and recently lost his position to young Juuse Saros.

The 24-year-old has been on track to eventually win over the trust and get the majority of starts for some time now. As his starts steadily increased through the last three seasons, Saros was often beat out by the veteran Rinne, who was able to find a late-career resurgence.

But as the tea leaves previously read, the 37-year-old Rinne’s time is up as a top goaltender and the Predators’ starter.

Saros started the last four consecutive matches prior to the massive 8-3 defeat to the Edmonton Oilers — in which Rinne was eventually pulled. Through that small sample size of games, Saros has been able to stop 93.1 per cent of shots he faced and earned three wins for the playoff-hopeful Predators.

After a successful streak of games by the young netminder and the Oilers trouncing all over Rinne, it makes all the sense in the world to declare Saros the new starter.

Unfortunately, it can’t be that simple when it comes to the situation in Nashville.

Just two seasons ago, Rinne was able to revive his career with a top-flight performance backed by a .927 save percentage and a 2.31 goals against average. After going through seasons of mediocre performances — one where he led the league in goals against — Rinne appeared to have a renaissance of his own. Unfortunately, the revival was shortly lived and the Finnish goaltender has nosedived into a blackhole of below-average goaltending.

Currently riding a .895 save percentage and a 3.17 goals against average, Rinne is certainly not the Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender that we have known. Not only is Rinne’s standard boxscore production abysmal, but when factoring in shot quality and advanced metrics, he is towards the bottom of the league.

Using Evolving-Hockey’s expected goals model and goals saved above expected (GSAx) metric, it’s easier to truly see which goaltenders are truly performing well and which ones are just a product of their team’s sound defence. While other stats don’t account for quality and since goaltenders don’t always face the same amount of dangerous shots, GSAx takes into consideration all of those aspects that raw save percentage of goals against average do not.

During Rinne’s 2017-18 Vezina-winning campaign, he recorded the fifth-highest GSAx in the league. Since it is a cumulative stat, he might’ve had the inside track on some of the less experienced goaltenders that season and interestingly enough, one was sitting on the Nashville bench.

Even at the age of 22 and only 26 appearances made (33 less than Rinne that season), Saros earned a 15.05 GSAx, placing him eighth among his goaltending peers. Rinned played less than half of the games Rinne did, but the fellow Finn was able to come close to the same total production that his partner recorded that season.

Saros has always been peering over the shoulder of Rinne, just waiting for his eventual downfall and this season, the switch has been flipped.

Rinne currently sits just two spots away from dead last in the league with a -21.37 GSAx this season — only Detroit’s Jimmy Howard and Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk performed worse. Although the amount of games plays a significant factor, the veteran that was once crowned as the league’s best, has plummeted to the bottom.

While Saros has not been exponentially better — holding a -6.40 GSAx — he is clearly the better option and the Predators are in a situation to see what they have.

It isn’t as easy as one always hopes, but parting ways with the goaltender that has started the most significant games in your franchise’s history is a gigantic shift. Considering that Rinne has started over 80 percent of the Nashville’s playoff games, this can be a tough transition from legend to prospect.

But at a time where the Predators are barely holding on to a spot in the postseason and an underperforming core of players, the time to take that next step is now.

Even with Rinne under contract for one more season, the team can’t afford a year lost to starting the wrong goaltender.

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