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Are the Predators preparing for a changing of the guard?

Pekka Rinne is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner and the longtime incumbent in the Predators’ crease. But don’t sleep on Juuse Saros

No one has come out and said that Pekka Rinne is in danger of losing his place as the Nashville Predators’ No. 1 netminder, a distinction he has held for a decade.

Then again, no one has to. Peter Laviolette’s actions back in May spoke volumes.

It was one of the more remarkable moments of the 2018 NHL playoffs. Rinne, in the wake of arguably the best season of his career – he won 42 games as Nashville claimed the Presidents’ Trophy – was pulled after he allowed two goals on seven shots in just 10:31 of Game 7 in the second-round playoff series against the Winnipeg Jets.

With the season on the line, Laviolette decided 23-year-old backup goalie Juuse Saros gave the Predators their best chance to stabilize the contest and, perhaps, to rally. It did not work out that way. Saros allowed two goals of his own (on 16 shots), and Winnipeg advanced to the Western Conference final.

If nothing else, it was a move that showed just how much the veteran coach trusted the young netminder. And it offered a glimpse at what might happen if Rinne slips – even a little – from the Vezina Trophy form he displayed throughout the 2017-18 season. If a guy is good enough to be on the ice when a team’s post-season run comes to an end, it’s not a stretch to think he could be the guy out there again when the 2019 playoffs commence. “Certainly, we’re going to rely on both goaltenders,” Laviolette said of his plan for the 2018-19 campaign.

As Rinne enters the final season of a seven-year, $49-million contract, his hold on the starting job has never been so tenuous. Nevermind that over the past six seasons he has started more games between the pipes than every NHL goalie other than Boston’s Tuukka Rask, Washington’s Braden Holtby and the New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist. Or that Rinne is one of five goaltenders with at least 30 post-season wins during that span (all five led their teams to the Stanley Cup final at least once). Or that he is the reigning Vezina winner, coming off a season in which he posted an impressive .927 save percentage and eight shutouts.

In the two seasons since Saros made the jump to the NHL, the statistics of Nashville’s two goalies have been virtually indistinguishable. Rinne has a 2.37 goals-against average and .923 SP, Saros has a 2.40 GAA and .924 SP. The only real difference is in their respective points percentages in games for which they earned the decision (.674 for Rinne, .591 for Saros), but Saros was unbeaten in regulation in his final eight decisions (6-0-2) at the end of last season, which contributed to Laviolette’s willingness to insert him in playoff games. He never started in the post-season, but he replaced Rinne in four games, including three times in the Winnipeg series. “He’s great,” said Rinne, who turns 36 in November. “It’s a very healthy competition between us. I feel like I still have good games in me and good years in me, but at the same time I realize (Saros) is breathing down my neck and that he’s ready to go.”

Saros, a fourth-round draft pick in 2013, is 5-foot-11 and does not fill up the net the way the 6-foot-5 Rinne does, nor is Saros as athletic. He does, however, read the play with remarkable aplomb, and much more often than not he gets square to the shooter and simply waits for the puck to arrive.

If he anticipates an opportunity to seize the spot at the top of Nashville’s goaltending depth chart, however, the youngster has not let on. An RFA this past off-season, Saros agreed to a three-year, $4.5-million contract that does not skew the Predators’ pay scale. In fact, it opens the door for Rinne to get a new deal that allows him to stick around beyond this season.

Make no mistake: management’s desire is to make sure Rinne does not go anywhere except into retirement, if that’s what he wants. Yet it is clear he is not going to earn the same sort of money or enjoy the same sort of job security. “First and foremost, my desire is that Pekka retires a Predator,” said GM David Poile. “We need to talk more, and I have to share with him more my thoughts on the future and the different components coming and going, in general. I need to hear from Pekka, too, in terms of where he is physically, mentally, what his desires are and all those things. Hopefully we can get on the same page.”

Even if they reach an agreement, it won’t change the fact the Predators eventually will turn the page and move on from the best and most accomplished goalie in franchise history. “I’m healthy and energized and feel really good,” Rinne said. “So I’m looking forward to this season. We both had a strong (2017-18) season and I don’t expect any less this year.”

He can expect more scrutiny and, if he’s not careful, a lot more time on the bench.

BURNING QUESTIONS

ANAHEIM DUCKS: Can the Ducks keep up? Division rivals Calgary, San Jose, L.A. and Vegas bulked up offensively in the summer while Anaheim was mostly status quo. Unless Sam Steel makes a rookie impact and Ryan Keslerand Corey Perry return healthy, Anaheim’s 18th-ranked offense will stagnate.

ARIZONA COYOTES: Can Rick Tocchet find the tonic to keep his young players progressing? Past Arizona coaches have faltered. For the Coyotes to build upon a strong finish, they’ll need Clayton Keller, Brendan Perlini, Christian Dvorak and Dylan Strome to keep their trajectories pointing upward.

CALGARY FLAMES: Can the Flames resist the temptation to overplay Mike Smith to the point he breaks down? Without a proven backup and with Smith turning 37 later this season, Calgary will have to live with the idea it can’t play its injury-prone MVP from last season in every key game.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: Have the Blackhawks repaired their goaltending? Even if Corey Crawford gets healthy, his concussion history makes him a threat for re-injury. Newcomer Cam Ward is an experienced safety net but graded out below average in most goaltending metrics. He’s well-worn at 34.

COLORADO AVALANCHE: Can the Avs find secondary scoring? The powerhouse line of Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen scored 36.5 percent of their goals last year. No one else hit the 20-goal mark. Tyson Jostand Alexander Kerfoot must prove themselves as top-six options.

DALLAS STARS: Is Dallas’ young defense corps ready? Sure, grizzled Marc Methot and Roman Polak handle support roles, but this blueline belongs to John Klingberg, Esa Lindell, Julius Honka, Stephen Johns and Miro Heiskanen. The latter, a rookie phenom, will get big minutes and responsibility.

EDMONTON OILERS: Did the reset button work on Cam Talbot and Milan Lucic? Sometimes unplugging your device, waiting a bit, then plugging it back in works. That’s what the Oilers are banking on. Cosmetic roster adds like Ty Rattie, Kailer Yamamoto and Tobias Rieder should help as well.

LOS ANGELES KINGS: Is Ilya Kovalchukhis old dominant self or a shadow of him? The answer is likely somewhere in the middle. A slight lean in either direction will be pivotal in the competitive Pacific. At 35, there’s still tread on the Kovy tire, but it’s a matter of how much and when will it wear thin.

MINNESOTA WILD: Will the kids help Minnesota improve from within after new GM Paul Fenton’s quiet off-season? Jordan Greenwaylooks ready as a crash-and-bang power forward. Joel Eriksson Ek needs to rediscover offense. Luke Kunin, recovering from a torn ACL, will be rusty when he returns.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS: Can the Preds win a Cup with no elite sniper? In their 19 seasons they’ve never had a player top 33 goals. Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson are safe bets for 30, but GM David Poile might need to shop for an upgrade, especially with prospect Eeli Tolvanen not making the team.

SAN JOSE SHARKS: What will San Jose do if Erik Karlsson can’t grow a Sharks-style beard? Or will Brent Burns and Joe Thornton fashion their facial hair to Karlsson’s look? That won’t matter. Question is, which star (Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Evander Kane) gets bumped to the No. 2 power play unit?

ST. LOUIS BLUES: The Blues improved with aggressive off-season signings and trades, but will that matter if Jake Allen doesn’t deliver a season as a true No. 1? Among goalies with 50-plus games since 2012-13, he ranks 41st in save percentage, and the Blues lost Carter Hutton as a fallback.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS: Does Elias Petterssonhave the physical maturity and durability to be a front-line NHLer at 19? We saw last season and in the NHL pre-season he has the playmaking and scoring skills, but how much of a learning curve will there be playing in the league’s most physical division?

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS: Can the Golden Knights keep the magic going? It was just 12 months ago most of us had Vegas slotted for 30th or 31st with a roster that hasn’t changed a whole lot. Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny are in, but James Neal and David Perron are out. Is that enough to maintain things?

WINNIPEG JETS: Did the Jets learn enough from the third-round loss to Vegas? Winnipeg has few other questions. Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Connor Hellebuyck, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor and Josh Morrissey were playoff novices last year. They’re less likely to burn out in the spring this time.

This story appears in the November 5, 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.

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