Juuse Saros

NHL Power Rankings: Training camp storylines

Leave a comment

It is July 13 and training camps open today for the 24 teams participating in the NHL’s Return to Play plan. On Friday, the league and NHLPA ratified the RTP protocols and a four-year extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. After a four-month break due to the coronavirus pandemic we got labor peace and hockey back (for now).

As players reunite to begin practicing ahead of the August 1 start date, there are plenty of storylines to ponder over these next few weeks. After months of speculation, we have some certainty about a few things, while we wait for other things to play out.

In this week’s Power Rankings we take a look at some of the bigger storylines as NHL camps open.

1. Injuries, opt outs affecting rosters

NHL teams began releasing their camp rosters over the weekend. There have been a number of absences from those lists. Nolan Patrick (migraines) will not be with the Flyers; Mike Green, Travis Hamonic, Karl Alzner were among the first players to opt out ahead of Monday’s 5 p.m. ET deadline. The Canadiens and Max Domi (Type-1 diabetic) will wait 7-10 days before deciding if he should participate. What about Rangers rookie Kaapo Kakko (Celiac disease)? Or Brian Boyle (Chronic myeloid leukemia)?  With expanded rosters teams will be able to adjust, but certain absences could leave holes in lineups that may not be able to be filled.

Kakko is on the Rangers’ camp roster as of Monday. Could that change? “If the doctors and the world of science told us not to play him, he’s not playing. It’s that simple,” team president John Davidson said last month.

This also rolls into the NHL’s plan not to release information about if a player tests positive for COVID-19. That first time a player misses practice or a game, the questions will begin.

Meanwhile, the Penguins announced Monday that nine players will be sidelined from camp after potential secondary exposure “to an individual who had contact with a person that has tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.”

News of positive tests or players being held off the ice will be a regular occurrence. What will happen if a roster is ravaged by the virus, as we’ve seen in Major League Soccer and the NWSL?

[Full schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers]

2. Coaches, players with new teams getting extended practice time

For coaches like Dean Evason, Peter DeBoer, and John Hynes, and players like Ondrej Kase, J.G. Pageau, llya Kovalchuk, Tyler Toffoli, and Alec Martinez, they didn’t get a training camp with their new teams. These three weeks will allow the coaches the time to hammer home their systems and give the players the chance to gel with new teammates — some of whom they’ve only played with for a handful of games following the trade deadline.

“I love training camp,” Hynes said last month. “You can make a big difference as a coach in training camp. I think it’s how you plan it out and how organized you are, [and you can] hit the ground running. Players come in knowing the expectations, physically, mentally, how we want to practice… You have an opportunity to teach, install and condition, without games every other day. I’m really excited to get back with the group and build upon some things we liked, but also now we’ve got a chance to really iron out some things we want to be really good at.”

Getty Images

3. Crease decisions

Tristan Jarry or Matt Murray? Marc-Andre Fleury or Robin Lehner? Devan Dubnyk or Alex Stalock? Pekka Rinne or Juuse Saros? Igor Shesterkin or Henrik Lundqvist? Having two capable goalies could prove to be vital in this kind of format, but one has to take over the starting role at the beginning. Teams will be using these next three weeks to answer the question of who starts Game 1. Given those teams in the Qualifiers will be playing best-of-five series, how long exactly will be the leash be for the starters if there are early struggles?

4. Benefit of the break for defending champs

The dreaded Stanley Cup hangover didn’t affect the Blues during the regular season. Despite losing Vladimir Tarasenko in October, they rolled through the Western Conference and finished with the second-highest points percentage in the NHL (.662) after playing 71 games. Now they get Tarasenko back, and will come off a four and a half month break instead of going right back into the playoff grind again.

That’s good for the legs and what lies ahead. Only two teams have done the back-to-back since 1998. It’s never easy to get through four rounds, but this would be a unique circumstance for a repeat.

“They’re hungry. They want to get back,” said head coach Craig Berube. “We’ve got good motivation, I believe, coming back and playing and trying to repeat. Our guys are in a pretty good spot now.”

Four Blues players and a coach did test positive for COVID-19, but there hasn’t been an indication how that will affect the team at the beginning of camp.

5. How ready will top seeds be for First Round?

As the Stanley Cup Qualifiers are going on, the top four seeds in each conference will play three games to determine where they’ll stand in the First Round. What kind of level will those eight teams play at knowing they’re just playing for seeding, which doesn’t include traditional home ice? If you’re Bruce Cassidy or Jared Bednar or Jon Cooper or Todd Reirden, you’re not worried about wins and losses; your concern is getting your players back up to speed and your goalies ready for when the playoffs begin.

“We’re kind of setting the tone for how things are going to be moving forward,” said Reirden. “We’ll do everything we can to prepare our players to be ready for that round robin game where we can affect our seeding, and then in addition to that, going into our first playoff series against whoever that may be.”

MORE:
Hockey is back: NHL, NHLPA ratify CBA, return to play agreement
Salary cap to stay flat at $81.5 million

————

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.

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

1 Comment

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.

[MORE: NHL announces return-to-play plans]

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.

MORE:
NHL clears up 2020 playoff picture

Qualifying Round storylines

————

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.

Rinne, other NHL veterans hope for final shot at Stanley Cup

1 Comment

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Goaltender Pekka Rinne scratched scoring a goal off his NHL bucket list this season. Winning the Stanley Cup?

That remains on the list with the season suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic amid concerns that next season will be affected, too. Rinne, a three-time All-Star and former Vezina Trophy winner, keeps dreaming about winning his first Cup.

”I always dream about winning Stanley Cup, and I don’t mind talking about it publicly,” Rinne said Monday. ”And, yeah it is my goal, it is our goal. I’m still hopeful. I’m still positive that we (are) going to get back and back to playing and we have a chance to compete again.”

With each passing day, the end of Rinne’s career draws closer. The 38-year-old Finn already has lost his starting job in Nashville to young understudy Juuse Saros.

At least Rinne is under contract for another season. Veterans like Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza, Mikko Koivu, Ryan Miller and Craig Anderson all are in the final year of their contracts and all 37 or older with a chance at their first Stanley Cup slipping away.

Marleau had been hoping for his first championship after being traded to Pittsburgh by San Jose at the trade deadline in February. Marleau has enjoyed the short amount of time that he had with the Penguins before the NHL stopped play.

”Everything’s been great with the organization,” said Marleau, who turns 41 in September. ”They’ve helped out every step of the way and looking forward to getting out of the house I’m sure like everybody else is and get back to normal and get out there and start playing again.”

Thornton, Marleau’s former teammate in San Jose, still is hoping to play another season with the Sharks at the bottom of the West right now. Playoff hopes also were already dim for Anaheim and Ottawa with Miller and Anderson, respectively, both turning 40 in the next three months.

Spezza turns 37 in June and had been hoping to lift his first Cup to celebrate.

Minnesota is a point out of the West’s second wild card with Wild captain Koivu now 37. He didn’t have an answer about his future for reporters earlier this month. He did acknowledge thinking about all his options.

”I’m in a boat like any other player that is trying to wait for the league to make a decision if we’re going to restart the season and when that would be,” Koivu said. ”And if not then obviously trying to figure out what to do with the future and then go from there.”

Rinne used the first couple weeks after the NHL stopped play March 12 to look at himself. The goalie who led Nashville to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final in 2017, then won the Vezina on his fourth time as a finalist in 2018 is now a backup.

Rinne is 18-14-4 as a starter this season, and he became only the 12th NHL goalie to score a goal Jan. 9 with an empty netter in Chicago from behind his own goal line. But Saros was in net for Nashville’s last six victories with Rinne 1-3-1 in his final five starts allowing 17 goals.

”I realized the fact that I haven’t had the strongest season so far,” Rinne said. ”But at the same time, I tried to use this time to my advantage.”

Nashville holds the second wild-card spot in the West and would be in the playoffs if the NHL decided to resume play by jumping straight into the postseason. So Rinne works out daily and works on his hand-eye coordination using juggling and having his girlfriend throw tennis balls at him to be ready for this season or get a head start on next season.

”For sure, right now we’re missing out,” Rinne said. ”But again everybody in the league, they’re in the same situation. And we’re dealing this, everybody’s dealing with it differently. But we all in it together. And hopefully, you know, hopefully soon, again, you know, we have a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup.”

Long-term outlook on Nashville Predators: salary cap commitments, big decisions

Long-term outlook for Predators Duchene Johansen Forsberg
Getty Images
1 Comment

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Nashville Predators.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

For better or worse, the Predators’ salary structure is loaded with long-term contracts.

GM David Poile made one of the biggest decisions yet when he locked down Roman Josi to a big contract extension. Josi looked like more than a $9.06M defenseman in 2019-20, but that eight-year pact doesn’t begin until next season. Josi turns 30 in June, so it will be fascinating to see if Nashville’s gamble pays off.

Matt Duchene‘s $8M AAV runs through 2025-26, one year after Ryan Johansen‘s matching cap hit expires.

For every very, very nice bargain (Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Ellis), there are some dubious contracts for the likes of Kyle Turris. There’s talent, no doubt, but with quite a few of those players getting older, it’s fair to wonder when the window will shut with a big thud. It’s also scary since 2019-20 also inspired doubts about this group’s ceiling.

It all makes Poile’s penchant for handing term to supporting cast members that much more limiting. Nashville has Colton Sissons, Calle Jarnkrok, Austin Watson, and Rocco Grimaldi on the books for quite some time. This isn’t to say that such moves will all backfire; they’re just worth monitoring.

The Predators also face some fascinating questions about who else is staying.

Both Mattias Ekholm and Filip Forsberg deserve significant raises when their contracts run out after 2021-22.

Nashville deserves credit for retaining Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros without handing them frightening term. Unfortunately, that flexibility also comes with some uncertainty. Both goalies’ contracts expire after next season, so the Predators will need to solve those riddles.

Will pending UFA forwards Granlund and Smith exit Nashville? You’d have to think something has to give, right?

Long-term needs for Predators

In the grand scheme of things, it seems like the Predators will need to make the most of what they have. They’ve made a lot of long-term commitments, and while they might be able to bribe someone or find some other way to shake a Kyle Turris or two loose, they mostly have to hope that core pieces age well.

Maybe the biggest need is to find someone to optimize their roster, honestly.

I can’t say I’ve been overly impressed with John Hynes’ abilities in that regard, as I’m not among those who think it’s wise for coaches to galaxy brain things by putting star players in timeout.

From special teams struggles to forward play, there are significant signs that Nashville isn’t getting the most out of its talent. That needs to change.

Long-term strengths for Predators

The Predators rank as one of those regular contenders who show a decent knack for finding talent in crevasses despite trading away key picks. Nashville doesn’t match the Lightning in unearthing hidden gems, mind you, but they’re solid enough at it.

The result is that Nashville comes across reasonably well on various prospect rankings. Coming in at 22nd on Scott Wheeler’s system list for The Athletic (sub required) isn’t world-beating stuff, yet it points to the Predators being able to maybe fill in a crack or two with some prospects.

It paints a larger picture of solid versatility for Nashville.

Saros gives the Predators a goalie of the future, and maybe a strong one. He slipped a bit from elite backup work as Saros made it more of a platoon, but there are still some positive signs.

While their forward group disappointed in 2019-20, there’s enough to work with to be a better strength. It’s promising, in particular, that Filip Forsberg is deep in his prime at 25, and Viktor Arvidsson is 27.

Actually, that pivots to a key question: how long will some of these strengths last? If the Predators age well, it could be for a while. It depends upon how well their top defensemen (Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm are all 29), Matt Duchene (also 29), and Ryan Johansen (27) age.

If the answer hems closer to the Bruins than, say, the Kings, then the Predators could contend for quite a few years. You know, if they get back to getting the most out of players again.

MORE ON THE PREDATORS:
Breaking down their 2019-20 season
Biggest surprises and disappointments

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Biggest surprises, disappointments for 2019-20 Predators

Predators disappointments Rinne Duchene Johansen
Getty Images

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Nashville Predators.

Rinne ranked among biggest disappointments for Predators

After a midcareer hiccup, Pekka Rinne skyrocketed back up the goalie ranks in recent seasons. Rinne won the 2018 Vezina Trophy as the highlight of this rebound, but was quite strong (.918 save percentage or higher) from 2016-17 to 2018-19.

Things weren’t pretty in 2019-20 … at least beyond the goal Rinne scored.

After a splendid start (7-0-2, .920 save percentage in October), Rinne plummeted to a sub-backup level. In the 27 games since, Rinne went 11-14-2 with a dreadful .887 save percentage. (That ties Rinne with Carter Hutton for the fourth-worst save percentage among goalies with at least 10 games played during that span.)

Juuse Saros stumbled to start the season, too, suffering through a .895 save percentage before the All-Star break. Luckily for the Predators, Saros turned things around in a big way, managing a .936 save percentage in 17 games following that break.

If the 2019-20 season resumes, it might be a disappointment if John Hynes chooses Rinne over Saros — at least if the two goalies continue on opposite trajectories.

Top Nashville defensemen found another gear?

While goaltending failed Nashville in some unexpected ways, you could argue the Predators’ defense somehow got stronger. At least if you’re grading the top guys.

Roman Josi cannot be ignored as the most obvious standout. Josi easily topped all Predators scorers with almost a point per game (65 in 69 contests). He also cleaned up his defensive game quite a bit, which silenced many of his doubters.

You could argue that in some ways, Josi surged off the charts. I had to raise the y axis of his Evolving Hockey RAPM chart to four deviations to account for his Corsi For/60 in 2019-20. (Translation: Josi was fantastic in 2019-20, and didn’t just ride a hot hand.)

Roman Josi not among Predators disappointments Evolving Hockey

When you consider all-around play, Josi may just be a better choice for Norris than John Carlson. That’s a debate for another day, though.

Injuries limited Ryan Ellis to 49 games played in 2019-20, yet he still managed to place fourth in team scoring with 38 points. That sandwiches Ellis between two $8M centers (Matt Duchene at 42, Ryan Johansen at 36).

Mattias Ekholm completes the Predators’ tremendous trio, sitting at 33 points with sound all-around work.

Considering P.K. Subban‘s sad 2019-20 season, the Predators hit a lot of the right buttons on defense. That was huge, because you could argue that almost every other facet of this Predators team hovers over the “disappointments” category.

Forward group remains on list of disappointments for Predators

When it comes to investing in goalies and defensemen, the Predators have consistently received good to outright fantastic value. That’s part of what made Rinne’s 2019-20 slump one of their surprises.

But it seems like no matter how much money the Predators pump into adding forwards, they end up worthy of the same gestures: a shoulder shrug, if not a shoulder slump.

After chasing Matt Duchene for quite some time, the Predators got what they wished for. Paying Matt Duchene $8M per year doesn’t automatically make him anything more than Matt Duchene.

And, hey, Duchene is … fine.

Yes, managing a modest 42 points in 66 games is underwhelming. Especially when you attach the phrase “for an $8M center,” which some understandably can’t resist.

Duchene checks out reasonably well in underlying stats, providing some of the better numbers of his career in that area. That $8M price tag will only look worse as he ages, yet Duchene really isn’t the problem. He just doesn’t solve many of your other problems.

Because, honestly, Duchene isn’t even the Predators’ most disappointing $8M center. That goes to Ryan Johansen. Johansen isn’t a bad player by any stretch — like Duchene, his underlying stats are respectable — but he can be frustrating. It’s one thing to be a playmaker. It’s another to become one-dimensional, which feels like a fair way to describe Johansen. Johansen averaged just 1.49 shots on goal per game this season, basically falling in line with his career-low from 2011-12, when he was 19.

An expensive committee

That “fine … but expensive” feeling hangs over others. Kyle Turris, Nick Bonino, and Mikael Granlund pitched in 30+ points each, helping the Predators score by committee .. but a very expensive committee.

It was a relatively tough season for Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, too. They both still rank as big bargains, mind you, but it was that kind of season for Nashville’s forward group.

Such widespread disappointments make you wonder if there’s something systemic going on for the Predators. While they addressed that by firing Peter Laviolette, I’m not so sure John Hynes will end up being the answer.

All things considered, it might be a pleasant surprise that this team entered the pause in playoff position. Maybe the Predators could generate bigger surprises if those disappointments turn around?

MORE ON THE PREDATORS

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.