To read part 1 of this three-part feature, CLICK HERE.
The Waiting Game: part 2 (Juuse Saros)
Headed into the 2016-17 campaign, Pekka Rinne has three years left on his deal. When it ends, he’ll be 36 years old, therefore, the Nashville Predators know they need a succession plan. Even if not at that moment, at some point. As of 2016, that succession plan seems to involve blue chip prospect Juuse Saros.
And who can blame them? When they chose Saros with the 99th overall pick in 2013, he was highly regarded by draft experts as a diamond in the rough due to his 5’10” frame. All he’s done since then is win the SM-liiga Rookie of the Year, led Finland to gold at the 2014 World Junior Championships, helped backstop Finland (along with Rinne) to a tournament-low nine goals allowed at the 2015 World Championships and was named to the 2016 AHL All-Rookie Team.
“Sometimes you can find motivation from those things,” Saros said about his accomplishments in an exclusive interview. “Especially if you’re struggling. You can get confidence from them. You can look at them and remember that you’ve done it before and that those experiences were no different than what you’re dealing with now.”
Fortunately for him, the word “struggle” wasn’t part of his vocabulary last year. Similar to Rinne back in 2006-07, Saros was nearly unbeatable in the final months of the 2015-16 season. In his last 17 regular season games, he went a remarkable 14-2-0, leading the Admirals back to the Calder Cup Playoffs.
“It was a special season for me,” he said. “But that was last season. I have to remember this is a whole new season. We all have to earn our spots again.”
The spot he’s trying to earn is the NHL back-up spot. The departure of Carter Hutton to the St. Louis Blues via free agency means that place on the depth chart is open. General Manager David Poile has said that either Saros or fellow prospect Marek Mazanec will fill it.
“I’d say Mazanec certainly deserves the first look,” he said back in June. “He’s spent four years in the organization, he’s been up here when Pekka went down a couple years ago and really played well. And I have no fear if he doesn’t do it, Saros can.”
While that chance at a full-time NHL roster spot could come as soon as this year, Saros, 21, knows that it’ll come eventually.
“You’ve got to be patient,” he said. “You’ve got to work hard every day and just believe in yourself. You can’t think about the future too much.”
But is it hard not to think about the future?
“I don’t think it’s a big challenge for me,” Saros said. “I think the situation is [tailored to my development] pretty good. I know that there’s still lots of work to do in order to get to that spot. So I’m working hard now and waiting for that chance to come.”
Technically, Saros has already had that chance, albeit a very brief one. He was called upon to play one game with the big club last year and, while he took the loss and made just 20 saves in the process, he played well.
“Oh, of course, there were butterflies in my stomach,” he said. “But, after the first couple minutes, it felt like a normal game. It was a special moment for me.”
Now that he knows he can play well against the best competition in the world, he’s eager to show he can do it over a long stretch of time.
“It gives you hope,” he said. “You learn that the game is faster and the players shoot harder but it gives you hope that you can play at that level. [Despite the loss] you want to take positive things out of it.”
Saros knows that he’s learning from one of the world’s best in Rinne. Being at the NHL level – even during training camp – means more time around the 11-year pro and, therefore, more opportunities to soak up whatever information he can.
“It’s really great to see that he battles every practice,” Saros said of his countryman. “He wants to stop every puck. Every time I see him on the ice, I can learn a lot from him. And he’s a really great guy away from the ice too.”
That kind of mentorship can pay huge dividends. On the ice, Saros witnessing Rinne try to stop pucks during a session that doesn’t matter just as fiercely as he tries to stop them in games can only teach work ethic. Off the ice, Saros watching Rinne donate time and resources to causes like Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt can only teach humility.
For now, however, Saros will have to relish the opportunities he gets as his time in Music City will probably be short lived. A full year of being the starter in Milwaukee beckons and, frankly, is probably the best move for his development.
“You’ve just got to be patient about it,” he said about the process. “You don’t want to rush yourself but, at the same time, you want to get there as fast as you can.”
How fast Saros gets there is up to a number of people, including General Manager David Poile.
CLICK HERE to read PART 3 OF THIS THREE-PART FEATURE.
PHOTO CREDIT: Brook Bratten // Nashville Predators