Why Predators’ Saros remains a top trade target despite inconsistent play

Nashville Predators goaltender Juuse Saros takes a drink in the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers Sunday, March 27, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. (Mark Zaleski/AP)

The Nashville Predators seem to have hit their stride, having just swept a five-game road trip for the first time in franchise history.

Even so, they remain on the playoff bubble as first-year general manager Barry Trotz keeps an eye toward the future. That has led to increased speculation that starting goaltender Juuse Saros could be available for trade. (The rapid rise of highly regarded prospect Yaroslav Askarov in the AHL has also stoked that fire.)

Saros, 28, has established himself as one of the NHL’s top goaltenders, finishing in the top six of Vezina Trophy voting in each of the past three years. He was a finalist in 2021-22, coming in third place behind winner Igor Shesterkin and runner-up Jacob Markstrom.

This season, however, Saros has struggled to find that level of consistency. Last season, 41 of Saros’ 63 starts (65.1 per cent) qualified as quality starts, which occurs when a goaltender posts a positive goals saved above expected (GSAE). That number this season is 54.3 per cent (25 of 46).

Saros stole a league-leading 10 games last season, meaning his GSAE was greater than the margin of victory in 15.9 per cent of his starts. So far, Saros has recorded five steals in 46 starts (10.9 per cent).

Poor defensive play is not to blame; Saros has faced fewer slot shots on net per 60 minutes this season (14.0) than he did last season (14.8). The Predators have improved in their own end, ranking 11th in expected goals against per 60 after finishing 25th in that category a season ago.

When peeling back the layers of Saros’ season, the decline in his performance cannot be traced to one specific area. For the most part, he has seen slight dips in multiple areas.

One exception is on screened point shots. Saros has an .862 save percentage on those shots — 63rd out of the top 64 goaltenders in playing time. That is down from .964 last season, when he ranked 13th out of 64 qualified goaltenders. (Saros has faced 2.2 screened shots per 60 this season, sixth fewest of the group.)

Saros comes with a $5 million cap hit and is signed through next season, so an acquiring team would get at least two possible playoff runs out of the deal.

The New Jersey Devils have frequently been mentioned as a potential destination for Saros. Devils goaltenders have given up 11.5 goals above expected this season, the third-worst mark in the league. The Los Angeles Kings could also be looking to upgrade the position. Sportsnet’s Jason Bukala wrote last week that it could take “a first-round pick this year, a second-round pick next season and a high-ranked prospect” to land Saros.

Although Saros has had a down year by his lofty standards, he has a proven track record of elevating his play down the stretch. Regardless of whether the Predators trade Saros by March 8 or after the season, their decision will be consequential.

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