To read part 2 of this three-part feature, CLICK HERE.
The Waiting Game: part 3 (David Poile)
How fast blue chip prospect Juuse Saros gets to the NHL is up to a number of people, including Nashville Predators General Manager David Poile. Saros’ maturation and attitude will be key, of course, but those things have never been an issue for him. As a result, it appears as if the speed of his ascent is more dependent on the organization and its depth chart.
“As we look to the future, Pekka Rinne is signed for three more years and hopefully he’ll play into his 40’s like Martin Brodeur did,” Poile said in an exclusive interview. “But you’re always looking at younger goaltenders. So now Marek Mazanec and Saros are reaching the point where they look like they could be good back-ups in the National Hockey League. They’ll get their chance and the better they play the more games they’ll play to see if they can be a number one.”
A number one in Music City or elsewhere? That’s just one of the many questions that will be answered in (probably) the next two years.
Logic suggests Saros will be ready for prime time before Rinne’s contract is up in the summer of 2019. Having another starting goaltender in the pipeline is a good thing but, if he’s wasting “good years” in the minors (or on the NHL bench 60 times a season), his confidence is at risk. And what if Rinne is still a bonafide starting NHL goaltender when his contract expires? What do the Preds do then?
“We look to take a goalie probably every year in the draft,” Poile said. “If it gets to the point where we think we really need a number one, maybe we use the first round to take a goaltender in the next couple years. It’s all based on where you think you are, how many years a guy has left to play and at what level he can play at.”
There’s almost a sense of pain that comes over Preds fans when they imagine a day without Rinne between the pipes. Not only is he a three-time Vezina Trophy finalist as the League’s best goaltender, an NHL All-Star and the franchise’s all-time leader in nearly every major goaltending category but his charitable work and his friendly demeanor are ever present.
“Pekka has probably been one of the best development projects we’ve ever had,” said Poile, the team’s GM since day one. “He was taken in a late round, played in Milwaukee for a full three years – there were different times, the way he was playing down there, we could have brought him up but we didn’t – and I think it was just textbook development. When he got to the NHL, he was firing on all cylinders and was good right from the beginning. It’s really just a good scouting story.”
That late round that Poile eluded to? It was so late it doesn’t even exist anymore. So how did a perennial Vezina nominee fall into the eighth round of the 2004 draft?
“Sometimes your scouts are in the right place at the right time, have the right contacts in the right places and get information that maybe doesn’t get to other teams,” Poile said. “With Pekka, it was just good scouting by our Finnish scout Janne Kekalainen having some knowledge of who he was. Pekka was in a tough spot because he was playing behind, at that time, Finland’s up-and-coming best goalie in Niklas Bäckström. From a scouting perspective, he never got to play in any games so we used to joke about it.”
What was the joke?
“Janne would say ‘We have interest in this goalie but, if you want to watch him, you better come early.’ ‘Why is that?’ ‘Well, cause he won’t be playing. You gotta watch the warm up.’”
Saros, in 2013, was the opposite. He didn’t fall to the Predators at 99th overall because he was hiding away as a back-up somewhere. He fell because of his 5’10”, 180 lbs frame.
“He would’ve been a first rounder except for his size,” Poile recalled. “So we said, ‘Because of his size, there’s probably some teams that won’t take him at all.’ We felt, where we took him in the draft, he was a worthwhile risk because of his talent. To me, he’s now tracking to play in the National Hockey League and he’s going to be successful in the National Hockey League.”
Not only does Saros appear destined for the NHL in the foreseeable future but his resume is impressive. In 2014, as an 18-year old, he backstopped HPK to the Finnish Elite League playoffs and picked up the SM-liiga Rookie of the Year award in the process. He also led Finland to gold at the 2014 World Junior Championships, helped his country (along with Rinne) to a tournament-low nine goals allowed at the 2015 World Championships and posted an incredible 29-8-0 record for the Milwaukee Admirals in his first season in North America.
“He hasn’t failed at any level that he’s been at yet,” Poile said. “Now, he hasn’t played at the NHL level [other than the one game] but he was really good in his rookie season in Milwaukee and he’s been really good here for the Predators in training camp. So, whether it’s this year or next year, he’s going to get his opportunity to play and we’re all going to find out whether that height is an impediment for him playing at the highest level or if his skills and his talents outweigh that and he becomes a solid NHL goaltender.”
Considering Rinne and Saros, it may seem relatively easy to draft a goalie. Actually, the opposite is true.
“For as good of a story as Pekka turned out to be, I can tell you that we used a first round pick on a goaltender that never turned out,” Poile said, referring to the 2008 draft and their choosing of 2007-08 CHL Goaltender of the Year Chet Pickard. “You just never know. When you’re drafting kids at 18 or 19 years of age, we try to gain as much of knowledge as possible but a lot of it is hope. The player’s attitude, their desire, all of those things you try to find out at 18 or 19 but some of them haven’t developed. And, on the other side, there are late bloomers too. I’m not sure there’s a particular formula but Pekka seemed to fit into Nashville and the Nashville Predators way.”
Regardless of whether Saros will carry the torch eventually or not, Rinne has grown as the franchise has grown and it’s not far fetched to think he’s the closest Predator to having his jersey retired once his career comes to an end, whenever that may be. The good news? He’s far from done. Not only does he have three years left on his current contract but he has a certain piece of hardware he’d like his name etched on before he hangs up his skates.
“When we win the Stanley Cup – or whatever success we have – Pekka will be at the top of the list for getting credit.”
As he should be.
PHOTO CREDIT: Brooks Bratten // Nashville Predators