With Friday’s 11 a.m. (CT) opening of NHL free agency looming, the Nashville Predators vacant roster spots are quite limited. In fact, it’s quite possible that outside of adding a depth defenseman or forward, the Preds only offseason lineup hole will be that of backup goaltender.
Nashville General Manager David Poile said Carter Hutton, who’s held the supporting role to Pekka Rinne for the past three seasons, will be moving on to a new team in July, in search of additional playing time and potentially even a starting job.
Like they will with the fourth-line center role - with Colton Sissons taking over for Paul Gaustad - the Predators are set on promoting from within when it comes to their second goaltender in Nashville. Poile explained on Tuesday that means two Preds draftees in Marek Mazanec and Juuse Saros will compete for the spot, with Mazanec’s experience giving him the edge.
“I’d say Mazanec certainly deserves the first look. He’s spent four years in the organization, he’s been up here when Pekka [Rinne] went down a couple years ago and really played well,” Poile said. “He’s had some inconsistencies in his game down in Milwaukee, but in terms of - can he do it? Should he be able to be the second guy? Absolutely.
“And I have no fear if he does not do it, that Saros can do it. I think Saros is a terrific athlete, terrific young goalie, played excellently this year. Ideally, we’d like to develop players, and we'd like him to get more playing time down there, but as I look at it, those guys are my second guys.”
Present at his second development camp on Tuesday Juuse Saros isn’t quite to the point of holding a “never tell me the odds” mentality, but the 2013 fourth-round pick isn’t ready to concede the net simply based on seniority either. The 5-foot-11 Finn posted a 29-8-0 record with a 2.24 goals-against average and .920 save percentage during the 2015-16 season, while being named to the AHL All-Rookie Team in his first year in North America.
“It’s an interesting situation and a really good chance for me too. I’m going to do whatever it takes to make that spot, so we’ll see,” Saros said of claiming the Preds’ backup goalie job. “Last year, there was so much new stuff with the rink size and adjusting to [North America], there was a lot of new stuff, so I’m pretty happy with where I am now.”
A smooth transition to the new rink dimensions, trapezoid and shooting angles of American and Canadian ice sheets may be Saros’s biggest evidence that he could make another jump up to the NHL in 2016-17. Plus, he already got into one NHL game in November, making 20 saves in a losing effort to the Buffalo Sabres.
Saros said on Tuesday the part that stood out to him the most about his taste of NHL action was that it’s still just hockey, even if the names are more famous and the salaries are bigger.
“I think I have chance to play in the NHL too,” he said.
He’s right, by the way. And that’s the kind of upward push you want in your development pipeline. The backup role in Nashville will likely go to Mazanec, who won NHL Rookie of the Month honors in 2013 after posting two shutouts in 11 appearances with Rinne sidelined, and he deserves it.
Still, if you’re David Poile, it’s nice to know that you have a 21-year-old Saros gunning at the next step in his career, and that he just might get there, too.