Over the last couple of years, a pair of items became clear regarding the situation in the Nashville crease.
First, as difficult as it may have been to accept, the Predators knew Pekka Rinne wasn't going to play forever. Secondly, the Preds had also determined they wanted Juuse Saros to take over once that day came.
When Rinne and the Predators officially announced back in July the legendary goaltender had indeed stopped his last puck, the attention turned to the second part of the plan with the younger of the two Finns.
On Monday, just over a month after Rinne's decision was made, the other half of the arrangement came to fruition.
The Predators avoided arbitration by signing Saros to a four-year, $20 million contract, a well-earned term and dollar amount after he posted the best statistical season of his five-year NHL career in 2020-21, going 21-11-1 in 36 games. Saros established career highs in several categories, including wins (21), starts (35), goals-against average (2.28) and save percentage (.927), totals that helped him finish sixth in Vezina Trophy and 11th in Hart Trophy voting.
Those numbers are worth rewarding, and Saros was certainly pleased to solidify his future with the Predators.
"Of course, I'm very happy about the new deal," Saros said Friday from his home in Finland. "I think it was a deal that both sides were happy [with], and I'm, of course, very happy to stay in Nashville, play in front of our great fans and stay with a team that I like a lot. I'm just very happy about it."
On Tuesday, Predators General Manager David Poile expounded on the deal while speaking on ESPN 102.5 The Game in Nashville, reiterating his confidence in Saros but also confirming the Preds will be counting on the 26-year-old to continue to embrace his role as Nashville's full-time No. 1 goaltender.
"Obviously really important," Poile said of inking Saros to a new contract. "Every negotiation has different twists and turns or what have you, but I think we arrived at a fair number of years. Juuse is 26 years of age, and last year was his first year of being the No. 1 goalie. I love his resume in terms of how we brought him over, played parts of three seasons in Milwaukee, has been under the mentorship of Pekka Rinne for the last two or three seasons and basically took over for Pekka [during] the second half of last season. Now, it's up to him to see whether he's truly a No. 1 goaltender."
Both of the previous two NHL seasons have been shortened due to the pandemic, and although Saros had started to emerge as the starting goaltender more often than not over that time, circumstances have kept him from starting more than 35 games in a single campaign.
With the Predators set to get back to a full 82-game schedule in 2021-22, Saros should be expected to receive the nod in the range of at least 55 to 60 games as the starter. The unknowns still exist, but if Saros' showing in the second half of the previous season to lead the Preds to the playoffs have revealed anything, he's more than capable of taking the reins full time once more.
"There's a lot of things that he still has to prove," Poile said of Saros. "It'll be his first year with a normal 82-game schedule, and he's going to be called upon to play more games than he's ever played before… In addition to that, obviously we hope we're a playoff team, and we need our No. 1 goalie to be able to be there for us in the playoffs… But I would hope that we'd all agree that, based on his resume, what we've seen is that [with] Juice's progress and how he played last year, I'm pretty comfortable that Juice is going to be a really strong goaltender to inherit the No. 1 position from Pekka."
Taking over that role without Rinne in the picture is an assignment Saros is ready to embrace, but the departure of the renowned goaltender still leaves a bittersweet feeling.
"It was pretty emotional when he called me and told me about that," Saros said of Rinne's decision to retire. "It's been awesome to play with him for so many years, but at the same time, you kind of knew that it's not going to last forever. I was really lucky and grateful for sharing that with him, four or five years. So, of course it was a bit of a sad moment when he told me that he's not coming back anymore, but personally, I'm ready to take the next step and be the guy in net and take the lead in the team."
Saros spoke Friday of his relationship with Rinne, one that began while Saros was still a child in Finland growing up watching and wanting to be like his fellow countryman. Saros never imagined things would turn out the way they have, but he's sure glad they did over time.
"It's funny to think [about how my career has progressed in that way], but it's like if you had an idol growing up, and then you watch them, try to mimic what they do, and then all of a sudden you come in to work in the same place," Saros said of Rinne. "I remember my first time meeting him, my hands were shaking a bit and obviously starstruck. A lot of times people say you should never meet your idol, but in this case, it was the opposite because when I met Peks and got to know him, he made even a bigger impression. And of course, it's pretty special that we met, and we're friends now, so it's pretty cool."
That friendship is sure to endure through the years, but Saros knows it will soon be time to depart Helsinki and head back to Nashville to begin his first season with the Preds without Rinne by his side.
The 26-year-old is ready, however, and he's already imagining those nights in Smashville once more.
"Very excited to start, and of course with the fans again," Saros said. "We got a taste at the end of the season playing in front of full crowds again, then at that moment, you remember that's kind of what it's all about. It's a huge part of the game to play with fans, and especially with our fans, so just really excited about that. And we had few big changes on the team, but that's also part of this sport, so I think we have a good, exciting, young group of guys as a team. I'm excited to see all of them and get to work with them."