Juuse Saros, Vezina Trophy candidiate? That would have been a silly prediction prior to the start of the season – heck, it would have been bonkers to suggest that heading into March.
Now? Not so crazy anymore.
If you haven’t been paying attention, Saros picked up his fifth consecutive victory on Tuesday, giving him a 15-7-0 record in games on the season. For a goalie that started the season with a 3-4-0 record, a .880 save percentage and a 3.66 goals-against average in the first month of play, Saros – and the Predators, but extension – have had a complete turnaround.
The Predators currently sit four points ahead of Chicago for fourth in the Central Division, the final playoff spot if the season was to end now. Considering the Predators were 23rd in the league two months into the season, the Predators have Saros to thank for helping this group become a contender once more – and perhaps save John Hynes’ job.
Over the entire season, Saros’ .945 save percentage at 5-on-5 ties Andrei Vasilevskiy – the favorite for the Vezina – for the lead among starting goalies. Saros’ 15.03 goals-saved-above-average is second behind Vasilevskiy and his high-danger save percentage of .863 is fourth among goalies with at least 20 starts, per Natural Stat Trick. In a nutshell, Saros’ stats are among the best in all the major goaltending categories, making a Vezina Trophy argument a realistic scenario.
For those who’ve followed Saros’ career, you know all too well about the ups and downs of a goalie that, at one point, was tabbed as one of the best young netminders in the league. His record wasn’t anything special in 2016-17 or 2017-18, his first two in the league, but he gave the team a chance to win in every start and was otherwise quite impactful as one of the league’s better backups. But his stats started to take a bit of a dive over the next two years as he gained more starts, and inconsistency started to become an issue for the 5-foot-11 crease guardian.
Whether it was unlucky bounces at key moments or flashes of brilliance that don’t last long enough, Saros’ career has had its fair share of struggles. The Predators drafted Yaroslav Askarov with the 11th pick back in October, giving the Predators a “franchise goaltender” to develop over the next few years.
But the Predators never looked to move on from Saros because they knew what they had in him. The whole crease situation was awkward – it was hard to ever get a point where both Saros and Pekka Rinne were flying high. One would get hot and the other would beg for another shot at the crease. Then, vice-versa. This year, though, it’s been undoubtedly Saros’ crease and as long as he’s performing, Rinne’s days as an NHL starter appear to be done – but that’s what the Preds were hoping Saros would be able to do a couple of years ago. Now, it’s legitimately the case, and Saros – once a hyped prospect due to his play in his native Finland and internationally – has thrust himself into the conversation as the league’s best goaltender.
Saros’ poor start to the season put the Predators in a tough spot early on. But he has all but made up for it in the meantime, posting a 10-2-0 record, an unbelievable .958 SP and a 1.32 GAA over the past month. Both of his season shutouts came in that span. The Predators are in a tough spot with eight players currently out of the lineup, including top forwards Filip Forsberg and Eeli Tolvanen and defensemen Dante Fabbro, so Saros’ play has been a nice bonus.
Vasilevskiy has been outstanding and Philip Grubauer, prior to getting placed on the COVID-19 protocol list, was performing at an outstanding level, too. But Saros continues to give his team a chance to win, even with key members missing time, and a team that looked to be out of their Stanley Cup window are firmly back in the conversation. Only Colorado (30 points) have more than Nashville over the past month (26), and they have the incredible goaltending from Saros to thank – finally.