November 28, 2015: Nashville Predators goalie Juuse Saros (1) is shown prior to the NHL game between the Nashville Predators and the Buffalo Sabres, held at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire)
Nashville Predators

Predators may already have their next franchise goaltender

Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire

Pekka Rinne is now 33 years old. His longtime backup, Carter Hutton, is headed to the St. Louis Blues. With Rinne’s numbers beginning to decline and father time catching up to him, the hunt for his heir apparent has begun in earnest down in Nashville.

While he is still capable of turning in All-Star performances, Rinne is under contract for three more seasons at a cap hit of $7 million. Just how many of those seasons he will be a key contributor to Nashville’s success is uncertain after he faltered for most of last season.

The three-time NHL Vezina Trophy finalist had a great bounce back 2014-15 season. Unfortunately, his numbers slipped again in 2015-16. He posted a 0.908 save percentage and a 2.48 goals against average in 66 games in 2015-16. Rinne’s even strength save percentage has dropped from 0.937 to 0.920 percent in the last two years.

April 29, 2016: San Jose Sharks center Logan Couture (39)deflects the puck behind Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne (35) during the third period of the NHL Playoff Round 2, game 1 between the San Jose Sharks and Nashville Predators at SAP Center in San Jose CA. Final score- Sharks 5, Predators 2. (Photo by Allan Hamilton/ICON Sportswire)

April 29, 2016: San Jose Sharks center Logan Couture (39)deflects the puck behind Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne (35). (Photo by Allan Hamilton/ICON Sportswire)

The difference in a goaltender’s performance over two seasons doesn’t tell much of a story. A look at the even strength save percentage of goaltenders that played at least 4,500 minutes from 2013 to 2016 makes Rinne’s recent struggles more clear.

Eighteen goaltenders have had a higher even strength save percentage than Rinne’s since the 2013-14 season. Rinne’s 0.867 shorthanded save percentage in that time also places him well outside of the league’s most reliable goaltenders.

The big Finn is no longer the elite goaltender that he once was.

With young stars like P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Johansen, and Filip Forsberg signed to multi-year deals the Predators will be a team to be reckoned with for quite some time.

But Rinne will be 34 in November. He shouldn’t be the goaltender that will play in front of those young stars for the next few seasons. His $7 million salary and cap hit won’t make putting him on the bench or moving him easy, but the Predators need to start thinking about who will be his following act.

Rinne’s understudy next season will be 24-year-old Czech goaltender Marek Mazanec. Mazanec has 27 games of NHL experience. However, he is not the most highly-touted goaltending prospect in the Predators’ system. According to hockeysfuture.com, that distinction belongs to Finnish goaltender Juuse Saros.

The 21-year-old Saros was taken by Nashville in the fourth round of the 2013 Draft. He is known for being technically sound and for his mobility in the crease. With Mazanec looking like the Predators’ next backup, Saros will have an expanded role with the Milwaukee Admirals.

Mazanec and Saros split the workload last season in Milwaukee. Saros emerged as the better goaltender at the AHL level despite being a rookie, posting a 0.920 save percentage.

The organization’s belief in Saros’ potential is clear. It was Saros, not Mazanec, who was called up for a cup of coffee in late November. The undersized goaltending prospect impressed in his NHL debut despite allowing three goals (two on the power play) in a loss against the Sabres.

The Predators will take their time developing Saros. Not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because it will save them money. Developing a franchise goaltender is a great deal more affordable than buying one in free agency or trading for one.

There is no need to rush Saros’ development. Rinne is capable of giving the Predators at least another season or two of quality goaltending, especially with the improvements made to Nashville’s defense.

Mazanec signed a one year deal and will be a restricted free agent when his contract ends. He can be retained as an inexpensive stopgap until the organization is ready to test Saros in at the NHL level. The one year term allows the Predators to get a better idea of what they have in both of their European goaltending prospects.

As things currently stand it is Saros, not Mazanec, who looks like the man to inherit Rinne’s crease within the next few seasons. Saros will be Milwaukee’s uncontested starter in training camp. Nashville fans should be paying close attention to what the young Finn does in his sophomore AHL season.

Predators may already have their next franchise goaltender
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