As Predators begin new era, Barry Trotz’s vision includes getting old with Juuse Saros

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Barry Trotz sat in the Bridgestone Arena stands Thursday morning and watched his Nashville Predators — his Predators, for a second time, from a different angle — go through an optional skate in advance of their home opener against the Seattle Kraken.

“Look at that,” he said, pointing at the prize acquisition of his first offseason as general manager. “The coaches are trying to get him off the ice.”

But Ryan O’Reilly kept skating, shooting, working as the ice emptied around him. It reminded Trotz of the old days, back when he was coaching this team and Shea Weber would launch endless shots after a skate, with Patric Hornqvist trying to redirect those rockets and Pekka Rinne trying to keep them out of the net. It should remind Predators fans of the timeline at hand.

Trotz wants to fill in the gaps, and see some of them filled by ascending youth, in time for Roman Josi and Filip Forsberg to make another run at the Stanley Cup, of course. But O’Reilly should be considered part of that veteran, untouchable core now as well. And the same can be said for Juuse Saros.

Based on what Trotz was saying in the spring, shortly after being named David Poile’s successor at GM, and on logic, I presumed Trotz would be moving Saros for the best haul possible over the summer. Or this season, around the trade deadline, if a contender saw Saros as the missing piece. Or next offseason. That would help furnish this mini-rebuild and pave the way for celebrated goalie prospect Yaroslav Askarov to take over in net.

Now, I think Saros is going to get paid, by the Nashville Predators. That’s based in part on this, from Trotz, on Thursday in those seats: “Saros wants to be here. If he wants to be here, I want him to be here. The number has to be right, you know. His agents are tough negotiators; they were Shea’s. But they work for the player, and the player can say where he wants to be. I think Juuse is special, and actually, when we go to Calgary, I told his agent, ‘We want to sit down with you, let’s talk and see what you’re thinking.’ (Connor) Hellebuyck signing sort of sets the bar.”

Hellebuyck, 30, just signed a seven-year, $59.5 million extension to stay with the Winnipeg Jets. That average annual value of $8.5 million is right in the appropriate range for Saros, who hasn’t yet won a Vezina Trophy, as Hellebuyck did in 2020, but who edges him in career save percentage (.919 to .916) and goals-against average (2.58 to 2.66). Saros, 28, led the league in goals saved above expected (46.7) last season, according to Moneypuck, and by any analytical measure is elite.

Which means the $5 million he’ll make in this, the next-to-last year of his deal, is quite a bargain. Those numbers, the salary and term, should attract goalie-needy teams. That could mean assets in return, rather than paying Saros $3 million to $4 million more a year as he gets into his 30s. And if Askarov is the player everyone in the organization hopes he is, the timing would be perfect for him to slide in and give the Preds a few more years of elite, cheap goaltending.

One of them has to go, right? You can’t be that loaded with goaltending quality when you are so needy elsewhere. Right? The Preds had a spectacular duo for five seasons with Saros backing up, and eventually overtaking, Rinne. But Saros was a fourth-round pick in 2013 who was able to grow into his greatness and was not the kind of prospect who was going to fetch the interest that Askarov — the No. 11 pick in 2020 — would. So pick one, I think. Or thought.

“I view it probably the same way as Pekka and Saros,” Trotz said Thursday of the possibility of some years of Askarov as Saros’ apprentice. “At some point, to me, Juuse is a star player. I’m going to treat him like a star player. I think he’s got lots of hockey left. Askarov is a star prospect, but … he’s a star prospect.”

It’s important to keep in mind that this is a general manager talking to a reporter, which means an opportunity to express a lack of urgency in trading a player who may be of interest to other general managers. Trotz has had conversations with teams about both of these goaltenders and has said many times he tried to get near the top of the last draft and couldn’t strike a deal. So, a few magic words from another GM at some point could render the preceding words obsolete.

For his part, Saros said Thursday, after leading the Preds to a 3-0 win over the Kraken, picking up his 21st career shutout: “It’s part of the business. I hope to be here for a long time but I can’t really control it. Obviously, when you hear stuff you think about it, but I try not to think about it.”

He did think about it for a few frantic moments over the summer, when a friend sent him a tweet from a fake Elliotte Friedman account “reporting” that Saros had been traded. Saros quickly visited a few sites looking for confirmation before realizing he’d been had.

“My heart was racing,” he said.

He’s feeling better now, clearly. The Preds want to win this season, need Saros at his best to do it and don’t need him distracted with thoughts of a possible trade. If an extension materializes, that’s done and Askarov can keep developing and turn into a trade chip or the next guy — potentially giving this franchise three straight star goalies, stretching over more than three decades.

Winning is not the most important thing this season, of course — though Bridgestone was packed and rocking Thursday, imploring the Preds as they evened their record. With Saros dazzling as usual, getting from post to post faster than a politically inclined Facebook user.

If he drags the Preds into the playoffs this season, that’s a bonus for first-year coach Andrew Brunette and his players (and for this franchise financially). It may not be what some fans want, because the only way to make sure you get to the top of the draft, a place Trotz has already tried to land, is to lose a lot. Going super young and inexperienced is the way to lose a lot.

Instead, Trotz signed O’Reilly, Gustav Nyquist and Luke Schenn — while paying for Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene to play elsewhere. That makes this an “establishment of culture” season. But maybe just as importantly, it’s Trotz’s way of bringing the young guys along without putting too much on them. O’Reilly is central to both considerations.

“Guys like Cody Glass and Tommy Novak, if they have to go shift in and shift out against Brayden Point, Connor McDavid, all these guys, what happens is, they’re in survival mode,” Trotz said. “And they never grow offensively. And they never grow with that confidence you need to be a good player. Some teams have gone too young, too early, and it took so long for the rebuild. I’m not going to name any teams, but it’s taken a decade or more. Because the young players could never get the traction. You lose a lot of those good players. The NHL is a league where, if you don’t have a great foundation, and all the tools in your toolbox mentally and physically, it’s relentless and ruthless at taking your confidence away. That’s what I wanted to avoid.”

The search for more established speed and skill comes in the next offseason. There are players who aren’t in this organization yet, and players who are but haven’t developed fully, who will dictate whether a Cup contender materializes. They will fill in around Josi, 33, with a cap hit of $9.059 million a year through 2027-28. And Forsberg, 29, at $8.5 million a year through 2029-30. And O’Reilly, 32, at $4.5 million a year through 2026-27.

And, it seems, around a Finnish goalie whose numbers are modest by comparison. For now. There’s a new feeling around this team, best described as enjoyment with a touch of relief. A change of direction has finally been charted. No one is mad at any executives, coaches or underachieving players. But some things are worth preserving, like the sound of “Yooooosse!” that rang out after every big save Thursday night.

(Photo of Juuse Saros and Seattle’s Jaden Schwartz: John Russell / NHLI via Getty Images)

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