Hynes to use camp for Predators’ No. 1 goalie competition

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Add the Predators to the list of teams with a big goalie decision hanging over them ahead of the NHL’s Return to Play.

Should the league resume the 2019-20 season this summer, teams like the Predators, Rangers, Penguins, and Hurricanes will be among those using training camp to determine their No. 1 starters. Pekka Rinne (35 starts) and Juuse Saros (34 start) split the workload during the regular season, but it was Saros taking the reins down the stretch. The 25-year-old Saros started 11 of Nashville’s final 14 games before the pause.

That success could play into head coach John Hynes’ decision when the time comes. But ultimately, he’s going to use training camp to make his final determination on who starts in the Qualifying Round vs. the Coyotes.

“We’ve talked to [Rinne and Saros] over this break, and I think both players have to come back with the mindset that they want to have the starting job,” Hynes told 102.5 The Game this week. “I don’t think it’s probably smart or fair going into training camp to say that one guy is ahead of the other only because we don’t know how they’re going to come back. Are they going to be ready? Is one guy going to be playing really well and one guy’s not? We believe both guys can help us win, but it’s going to be a bit of a competition.”

The case for Saros

Hynes said that the reason why he didn’t play Rinne as much before the pause was because Saros was “finding ways to win games.” That was certainly the case.

In Nashville’s last 18 games, Saros started 14 of them (and relieved Rinne twice) while posting a .939 even strength save percentage, and was second among goalies over that stretch with 7.2 goals saved above average and a 29.68 expected goals average, via Natural Stat Trick. The Predators won 10 games he started in that period, which plays into Hynes’ reasoning for sticking with the hot hand.

Hynes certainly needed something from his netminders given the playoff fight Nashville was in. Through 69 games the Predators had 78 points, good enough to put them in the second wild card spot in the Western Conference. But the Wild and Coyotes were right on their heels within four points, making every game a big one. That’s why Saros was the choice, which was strengthened with a pair of huge shutouts against the Stars just before play stopped.

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The case for Rinne

There’s not really a statistical argument in favor of the veteran here. If you take stats from this season, Saros has the edge. But this isn’t just another season. There will have been nearly five months between games, if a restart even happens.

What Hynes could rely on if he chooses Rinne is the experience factor. Saros has zero starts and seven playoff appearances in his career. Rinne has 89 starts and helped the Predators advance to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. He’s played in those big games and been in those tense moment. Recent history is against him, however. In the last two postseasons he’s put up an .908 even strength save percentage in 19 starts. That’s not good.

A best-of-five series means there’s little room for error.

“I think the team that gets goaltending right away [has the advantage],” Hynes said. “It’ll be four months off before a training camp and maybe an exhibition game, maybe two, we don’t know. It’s going to be a little bit of hyperactivity, a lot of intensity. The team that gets goaltending early in this to allow their team to get up and running, get some confidence, and get the team better to battle is going to be really important.”

Both goalies are signed through the end of the 2021-22 NHL season. Saros is clearly the future with Rinne turning 38 this coming November. The torch passing that was eventually coming in the Nashville crease has likely already happened.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.