No player on the 2021-22 Nashville Predators was more important to the team than Roman Josi.

Except, of course, that’s a lie.

Because Juuse Saros, who finished with the most wins in the NHL and the 8th highest save percentage, was just as important to the Preds. Never was that more obvious than during Nashville’s four game sweep loss to the Colorado Avalanche. Without their ace goaltender, who was out with a high ankle sprain, the Preds allowed 21 goals in four games and never stood a chance against the eventual Stanley Cup winners.

Going into the 2022-23 season, it is expected that Juuse Saros will be fully recovered from his injury. Even conservative timeline estimates of his original injury would have seen him miss about three months. Since the new season doesn’t begin until October, Saros will have more than five months to rest and recover.

Though the team added significant pieces to both the defense and offense, it’s expected that Saros will be just as important to the team next season as he was last season.

But now the age-old goaltender question begs to be asked… how much should the Predators rely on Juuse Saros next season?

Juuse Saros among heavily used 26-year-old goalies

Juuse Saros’s season last year was one for the books. Finishing with a .918 save percentage, he earned a league high 38 wins and finished 3rd in Vezina Trophy voting. He also led the league in minutes played with 3,932, solidifying his “workhorse” status at only 26 years old.

In fact, Saros is one of only four 26-year-old goalies to start at least 67 games in a season since 2007. The other three are Jonathan Quick (2011-12), Cam Ward (2010-11), and Henrik Lundqvist (2008-09).

That’s some nice company. Three Stanley Cups, two Conn Smythe winners, one Vezina Trophy, and at least one Hall of Famer in that list.

Some will look at Saros’s heavy usage last season as a criticism of John Hynes, whose refusal to play backup David Rittich more often led to Rittich’s unpreparedness in the playoffs. Others will say it’s a criticism of the team’s overall makeup; that the only way the team could sneak into the playoffs was with a heroic effort by their superhuman goalie.

Personally, I think it’s just another accolade for Juuse Saros.

The fact is: the only reason a goalie gets north of 60 starts in a season is because they are really, really good. If there were other legitimate options, ones that would give the Preds a chance to win every night, they would have used them. They didn’t, and that’s because Saros is a top five talent at his position.

History of follow-up efforts as a 27-year-old

There’s a great deal of selection bias when looking at goalies with the most starts. The goalies with the best talent are often given the most opportunities to succeed. The fact that Saros can be included on a list with Lundqvist, Ward, and Quick is no mistake. He’s as talented as those guys were at 26-years-old.

But the next question is this: how did those other three goalies fare in their follow up seasons, playing as 27-year-olds? Did they see any drop off after such heavy usage?

Cam Ward followed up an astonishing 73 starts in 2010-11 with 68 starts in 2011-12. He also saw his save percentage decrease from .923 to .915 from one year to the next. Ward’s performance clearly suffered from overuse in these early years: he averaged just 43 starts per year after 2012 (not counting the lockout shortened season in 2012-13) and his career save percentage plummeted over his final seven seasons, finishing at .908.

Lundqvist started 70 games in 2008-09 and followed it up with 72 starts in 2009-10. Unlike Ward, Lundqvist saw an increase in his save percentage from .916 to .921 from one year to the next. After 2010, Lundqvist averaged 61 starts per season for the Rangers, before finally retiring in 2020 at 37 years old.

Quick is tricky one, because his 27-year-old season was the NHL’s lockout shortened season in 2012-13. He started 36 of the team’s 48 games that season, but saw a dramatic drop in his save percentage: from .929 in 2011-12 down to .902 in 2012-13. As a 28-year-old in 2013-14, Quick started 49 games, splitting time with emergent young goalie Martin Jones, and would go on to win the Jennings Trophy, given annually to the goalie that allows the fewest goals.

That’s three different goalies with heavy use as 26-year-olds with three different results in their follow up 27-year-old seasons. And they also had three divergent career paths.

Quick burned hot for several seasons with the Kings, winning two Stanley Cups, but has not been a top goaltender in the league for many years. Cam Ward, as mentioned earlier, quickly regressed as a goaltender. Henrik Lundqvist is a walking Hall of Famer; it’s only a matter of time before he is enshrined in Toronto.

So, what does this mean for Juuse Saros in the upcoming 2022-23 season? Is he more likely to follow the Lundqvist path, increasing his performance and (maybe possibly) on a path to the Hall of Fame? Or is he another Cam Ward or Jonathan Quick?

Saros start numbers should go down, but not by much

Before we answer that question, there’s one more stat we need to address, and it has to do with how much “tread on the tires” Saros might have left.

Juuse Saros has 216 combined regular season and playoff starts under his belt. Entering their 27-year-old seasons, Cam Ward had 269 combined starts and Jonathan Quick had 274.

Henrik Lundqvist, on the other hand, had only 179 combined starts entering his 27-year-old season.

When it comes down to it, NHL goaltenders only have so much gas in their fuel tank. Lundqvist was just getting going when he was 27-years-old, so putting in multiple 60+ start seasons made sense. Ward and Quick were a bit more worn down by the time they reached their late twenties, early thirties, and their performance slowed.

So what does Juuse Saros gas tank look like right now? Mostly full? Half empty? A third full?

With 216 career combined starts, I’d say Saros is not in danger of following the path Ward and Quick took, where they wore down quickly after heavy usage. But he’s also not as fresh as Lundqvist was at the same age.

Plus, Saros has just suffered his first major injury. We still don’t know what he will look like when he gets to training camp.

The best option for Juuse Saros is to finish with around 60 starts, but not more than 65 starts. Under no circumstances should he finish next season with more starts than he had in 2021-22.

Fewer Saros starts is better for all parties

Three things happen by giving Juuse Saros fewer starts. One, the Predators protect their best goaltending asset from future wear. Two, the Preds capitalize on Saros’s peak years during a time when the team badly needs to make the playoffs to stay relevant. And three, the backup goalie gets a little more work, reducing the likelihood of another David Rittich situation.

On that note, the backup goaltender role going into 2022-23 is an enigma. It was assumed Connor Ingram would be the backup next season, but then the Preds signed Kevin Lankinen to a one-year, one-way deal.

Lankinen was one of the worst goalies in the NHL last year by many measures, including even strength save percentage (63rd) and even strength goals saved above average (66th). By comparison, David Rittich finished 64th and 50th in those two categories. But Lankinen did play on Chicago Blackhawks, who were very poor defensively.

It is assumed that Lankinen and Ingram will battle for the backup goaltender spot in training camp. Ingram struggled in the playoffs against the Avalanche, but showed promise earlier in the regular season.

Whoever wins the role should get between 18-20 starts during the regular season, which would give Juuse Saros between 62-64 starts as the ace.

— Featured image via Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports —