CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- Juuse Saros' eyes light up when he thinks that one day, he could succeed his idol, Pekka Rinne, as the Nashville Predators No. 1 goaltender. At the same time, Saros understands that dream may not become reality for a while.
Coming off his first professional season in North America, the Finland-born prospect believes he would benefit from at least another season with Milwaukee, the Predators' American Hockey League affiliate.
"I think that would be the best thing to go there and get games there," Saros, 21, said after the recent prospect tournament hosted by the Florida Panthers. "Of course, the competition is tough every place, but for my development it would be good to play a lot there.
"I want to be better every day and just try to do my best every day and learn and to become a better goalie. I just want to play a lot and have a good season."
Saros split time with Marek Mazanec in Milwaukee last season and finished with a 29-8-0 record, a 2.24 goals-against average, .920 save percentage and four shutouts.
But the highlight of Saros' season came when he was recalled by the Predators and made his NHL debut Nov. 28 against the Buffalo Sabres. Although he gave up three goals on 23 shots in a 4-1 loss before being sent back to Milwaukee, it was a memorable evening for him.
"Of course, it was a dream come true for me and I want to play a lot more there," he said. "But I have to be patient with that. But it was a big thing and I hope there's still games to come for me."
Before Saros can play NHL games on a regular basis for the Predators, he'll have to wait behind Rinne, who has three years remaining on a contract that pays him $7 million per season.
Saros said Rinne, who will turn 34 in November, was one of the goalies he admired, along with fellows Finns Tuukka Rask and Miikka Kiprusoff.
"[Rinne has] always been a big idol for me when I grew up, and it's nice to have him there to help out," Saros said. "I only have good things to say about Pekka. We haven't talked much about the hockey part, but he has talked about how the game is so much faster than back in Finland and shots are harder. He told me it's a different game."
Saros, the Predators fourth-round pick (No. 99) in the 2013 NHL Draft, played professionally in Finland for three seasons before coming to North America last year.
He made a quick impression on Milwaukee coach Dean Evason.
"Juuse is setting himself up to be in the NHL, we believe," Evason said. "The best thing about Juuse, the most positive thing, is his work ethic. You come to practice and you watch him, he works so hard. Every single day. And it gives him an opportunity to have success.
"He struggled last year playing the puck and we've seen him … put the work in to improve the areas of his game that weren't as sharp as other parts of his game. We've seen him come a long way for sure."
By today's NHL standards for goaltenders, Saros is undersized at 5-feet-11, 180 pounds.
That hasn't stopped him yet, and he's not planning on letting it stop him anytime soon.
"Of course, you hear some talk now and then," he said. "But it just makes you want to show more. I've always been a little smaller guy, but I just need to find other ways and don't make it as an excuse, and just have to read the plays well and move well and just have to find ways."
Evason said: "He's a guy that isn't the biggest guy in the world, so he has to work even harder to get to the level to where he wants to be, and that's in the NHL."
Saros said he's still a work in progress as a goalie, and it's difficult to predict when he'll be ready for full-time NHL duty.
But the goal is clear: taking over in Nashville after the Rinne era ends.
"I want to be that guy," Saros said.