Juuse Saros has Preds-Canucks series — and maybe his Nashville future — in his hands

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Juuse Saros has Preds-Canucks series — and maybe his Nashville future — in his hands

Nashville Predators general manager Barry Trotz has been open all along about the fact that his goaltender could be someone else’s goaltender in the near future, and Trotz has given the public glimpses of his mindset along the way — resolved to signing Juuse Saros to a long-term deal early in the season, open to offers on him in the weeks before the trading deadline.

Saros’ improved play, the Preds’ improved play, and maybe most importantly, the absence of a dazzling offer kept No. 74 in a Preds uniform. Now he’s trying to lead them to their first playoff series win since 2018, which would be his first playoff series win in three tries. You have to wonder if his performance will nudge Trotz one way or the other. You’ve got to think it might, and you’ve got to understand why it would.

Well, you don’t have to think any of those things, but I do. Nothing matters more in the NHL than the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and that should apply to individual evaluation, compensation and legacy as well. If I’m Trotz and I’m deciding between giving 29-year-old Saros a massive deal before he becomes a free agent in 2025, or moving him in favor of price-controlled, ultra-gifted — and still unproven — 22-year-old Yaroslav Askarov, I need this Preds-Vancouver Canucks series as a source of critical information.

Here’s what it whispered to Trotz after Sunday’s Game 1 in Vancouver: Your guy was outplayed.

Saros gave up a soft goal to tie the game 1-1 early in the second, an Elias Lindholm shot that simply can’t find the net. He was solid otherwise in the 4-2 loss, which included an empty-net goal and two others that can’t be blamed on Saros. But counterpart Thatcher Demko had the spectacular early save to rob Anthony Beauvillier and the superior performance.

Here’s what Game 2 had for Trotz on Tuesday in Vancouver, a deceiving 4-1 Preds win against the Canucks: Now that’s the kind of goalie a general manager can grow old with.

The news of the day was Demko’s unspecified injury, keeping him out of Game 2 and, per sources to The Athletic, rendering him questionable for the rest of the series. This after he missed five weeks late in the regular season with a knee injury. This, potentially, nudging the edge in this series toward Nashville.

The news of the night was Saros, producing a gem of a performance to win a game that was dominated by the Canucks. The third period looked like one endless Vancouver power play, with the Preds unable to escape the defensive zone. And it looked like a Saros highlight tape — Brock Boeser, Dakota Joshua and Pius Suter all denied on a variety of quick-twitch contortions.

Saros had a lot of help, starting with a whopping 32 blocked shots from his teammates, leaving him to collect 17 saves. Vancouver star center Elias Pettersson helped out by passing up an open net on one power play and missing an open net on a different power play. Filip Forsberg came through with a filthy goal. Beauvillier scored one on a fluky deflection past backup Casey DeSmith and set Colton Sissons up for another with a hard drive to the net. The Preds hung tough amid territorial futility.

But Saros is the takeaway because this is the version of him the Preds must have to win this or any playoff series. The complexion of this one changed quite a bit in a few hours.

The win improves Saros to 4-8 in the playoffs. That’s not great, but it’s inaccurate to say he hasn’t performed well in the postseason. He certainly did not in his first opportunity, in the best-of-five Qualifying Round series against the Arizona Coyotes in 2020 in the bubble in Edmonton. It was not a certainty Saros would start in net over aging mentor Pekka Rinne at the time, though Saros had outperformed Rinne during the interrupted regular season. John Hynes gave him the series, the right move, but he had just an .895 save percentage in the 3-1 series loss.



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A year later, he was outstanding in a 4-2 series loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. He was out of his mind in Games 3 and 4 in Nashville, two overtime wins to equalize the series, collecting 110 saves combined — becoming the second goalie in NHL postseason history to have 50 or more in consecutive games. He had a .921 save percentage in the series. He got a four-year, $20 million deal from former GM David Poile in the summer that followed. He’s been worth every penny.

So yes, Saros was 3-7 in the postseason coming into this third opportunity, but he was really 1-1. One subpar series, one excellent series. An ankle injury kept him out of a sweep at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche two years ago.

This is his first playoff action since, against the favored Canucks, in a series that started two days after his 29th birthday. Rinne was a few months shy of his 29th birthday in 2011 when he cemented himself as one of the top goalies in the game, leading the Preds to the first series win in their history — then performing spectacularly in a 4-2 series loss to the Canucks.

Rinne had tremendous postseason highs and lows in the years that followed. But that was the year he proved he could carry his team to a series win. The Preds need to see that from Saros. This was a realistic opportunity before Demko got hurt. Now it’s one Saros and the Preds can’t let pass.

And if you’re Trotz and this goalie and this veteran-loaded team play well into May, wouldn’t you be less inclined to separate them from each other and go with an unproven commodity in net, despite the financial freedom it gives you? There are several variables, of course, including Askarov’s progress and how other general managers value both goalies. This series isn’t a game show and won’t produce a final answer.

But it is going to be telling. And should have a say.

(Photo: Derek Cain / Getty Images)