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NHL Winter Classic

Predators goalie transition eased by Rinne-Saros friendship

Nashville trending toward even split rather than starter/backup roles entering Winter Classic

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer

When Juuse Saros first walked into Pekka Rinne's house, he was in awe. This was where an idol of his lived, a player he had watched growing up.

As Saros said, "We're living in this big house and going to the practice with these guys that you grew up watching on TV. So yeah, it was all kind of bizarre."

He was Rinne's roommate for training camp with the Nashville Predators, taking a first step toward an eventuality each of them understood. If all went well, Saros eventually would unseat Rinne as Nashville's No. 1 goalie.

 

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It seemed so far away in 2016. Saros was 21 years old, untested and unproven in the NHL. Rinne, who spent most of that training camp at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, was one of the best goalies in the NHL, a season away from winning the Vezina Trophy.

But now, the time is approaching. There is no exact plan for when it will happen, at least not one the Predators are willing to share, but the transition from Rinne to Saros, now 24, is happening.

"I don't know if I want to tell that to myself, but I think ... I'm 37 and I have, after this one, one more year in my contract," Rinne said. "He has a bright future, and his future is ahead of him. So of course, that's ... it's just a fact. It's a fact."

But that doesn't mean Rinne is ready for that time to come just yet.

Video: '20 Winter Classic at Cotton Bowl Stadium time-lapse

"I think it's an ongoing process, but at the same time I still have that fire in me," Rinne said. "The biggest thing obviously at my age is being healthy, and I feel healthy. I feel great. So at the same time, I'm going to do my best to help this team and also play some games there. But I don't know how much longer I'm able to keep this guy behind me."

The circumstances are complicated, but they're eased by the goalies' relationship. The two are close, each born in Finland, and they've spent a lot of time together, from training camps to debating hockey gear and goaltending approaches.

"It's a special situation," Rinne said. "We're both from Finland. I always feel like I had such a good relationship with my partners over the years and any other goalie I've had, we've always been really close. It's no different with Juuse.

"But yeah, I think we both realize that we've tried to separate the off-ice and on-ice thing. It's not the same. We still battle and we compete. I want to play, and he wants to play. It's a healthy situation, but then off the ice he's like a little brother to me. He's very close to me."

They push each other and they push themselves.

Video: NSH@PIT: Rinne makes back-to-back saves

But though in the past it was clear that Rinne was the starter and Saros was the backup, that has become muddied this season. Saros, who started 19, 23 and 27 games in his first three seasons in Nashville, has started 16 of the Predators' 38 games this season. He's on pace for 34 starts, the most by any of Rinne's partners since Rinne became the Predators' No. 1 in 2008-09, with the exception of 2013-14 when injuries limited him to 24 games.

Rinne is 13-7-3 in in 23 games with a 3.02 goals-against average and an .894 save percentage, each of which are the worst marks in his NHL career. He's been removed from a game four times. The latest came Friday, when he allowed three goals on six shots in a 5-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Rinne is on pace for 50 starts, which would be his fewest in a season since 2012-13 (not counting 2013-14).

Saros is 5-7-3 with a 3.23 goals-against average and .890 save percentage in 18 games. He was pulled Saturday after allowing three goals on eight shots in a 6-4 loss to the Penguins.

Subpar play from their goalies is one reason the Predators (18-14-6), a team that many predicted to compete for the Stanley Cup, are three points out of the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Western Conference heading into the 2020 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic against the Dallas Stars at Cotton Bowl Stadium on Jan. 1 (2 p.m. ET; NBC, TVAS).

Video: SJS@NSH: Saros denies Meier with his glove

That's why both players are more intent on solving their current situation, improving their own play and that of their team, than looking into the future. But they -- and the Predators -- cannot avoid the fact that the future is coming ever closer. It's a piece of how the Predators are evaluating the struggles of their goalies this season, how they're deciding the rotation, how they're considering the days beyond the present.

"Those things have been talked about," coach Peter Laviolette said. "There's no surprises inside the room. Pekka has been such a great goaltender, and still is. (Saros) is a young goalie who's pushing for more time every opportunity he gets."

Rinne is under contract for one more season after he signed a two-year, $10 million contract Nov. 3, 2018. Saros also is under contract for one more season, at $1.5 million, and can become a restricted free agent July 1, 2021.

"There's always a plan in place," Laviolette said. "At the same time, we're fortunate that we have two great goalies. (Saros) is pushing for more opportunities where he can get them, and Pekka has done a really good job of just being himself."

Not that Rinne doesn't want to play more games. Not that he wants to see the end of his career approaching, or his successor readying to take his place. But he also understands.

"We're fortunate," Laviolette said. "It's been a really good entry in for Juuse because of (Rinne) and who he is as a person. They have a great relationship and I do think there is something there because they're both Finnish goalies and (Rinne) has really done a good job of making sure that this kid's OK and he's learning the right way."

It has been the perfect fit. They have been the perfect tandem.

It has been easy, which is all any player can ask about a teammate, or a roommate. Saros has been willing to learn; Rinne has been willing to teach.

"It's always been a good relationship between us," Saros said. "He's always helped me with everything and still helps me if I have questions off the ice, and even on the ice we share a lot of thoughts about the game. So yeah, of course we're competing on the ice time, but I really couldn't ask for a better guy to be there."

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