After an NHL career that spanned 683 games and included 369 wins and 60 shutouts, Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne has announced his retirement from the game at the age of 38. It was apparent that the Predators were handing starting duties over to Juuse Saros a while ago, but now that the transition has happened could Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury be on the Preds radar?
Last season, Saros put up good numbers for Nashville. He posted a 21-11-1 mark with a .927 save percentage and 2.28 goals-against average. He started 35 of the Preds 56 games, or 62.5 percent. That type of workload over an 82-game schedule is 51 starts, give or take a few. If Saros continues to be the goalie the Predators believe he is, he could see upwards of 60 starts. And that’s where figuring out a quality backup comes in for general manager David Poile.
Right now, the Predators have a total of 16 contracts signed between nine forwards and seven defensemen (no goalies). Per our friends at PuckPedia, the Preds have $22.125M in cap space available. The heavyweight contracts belong to Roman Josi ($9.059M/5 more years), Ryan Johansen ($8M/4), Matt Duchene ($8M/5) and Ryan Ellis ($6.25M/5). After that only one other player making seven digits is signed beyond next season, and that’s Colton Sissons ($2.86M/5). Other big names like Philip Forsberg ($6M) and Mattias Ekholm ($3.75) only have one year left on their current deals.
That’s my way of saying the Nashville Predators are at an important crossroads for the franchise. The Preds have some money available but a lot of needs as well.
The upcoming expansion draft also presents a potential opportunity for Nashville to open things up and pursue Fleury. Rumblings in Nashville surrounding the current core are that they just can’t seem to get it done, and it might be time to make major changes. Don’t be surprised if you see either Matt Duchene or Ryan Johansen, and perhaps both, exposed in the expansion draft for Seattle to take. It would give the Preds some important cap room, and could really shake the team’s foundation to its core. From afar, it might be just what the team needs.
Where Marc-Andre Fleury comes into the picture is that he’s a one-year veteran solution who can play big minutes if needed, but also gives you a fantastic teammate who can mentor a young goalie. Plus, there aren’t too many teams left for him to play for that wear some variation of yellow/gold on a regular basis.
Here’s the other important note: Saros is RFA right now. Rinne retired. Nashville actually only has three goaltenders under contract as of this writing and none with any NHL experience. Kasimir Kaskisuo left for Sweden. And unfortunately for the Predators, Connor Ingram entered the players assistance program back in January leaving his future up in the air. The pickings are pretty slim in net right now, and that’s a precarious place to be for the Preds.
When it comes to a deal for Saros right now, there are three options: a qualifying offer/arbitration, a shorter-term bridge deal or a long-term deal. There are good and bad sides to shorter and longer contracts. Sometimes a bridge deal keeps you from making a long-term mistake with a player who doesn’t pan out beyond one or two good years. There’s also the flipside of that – witness PK Subban. He signed a bridge deal with Montreal and promptly went out and won a Norris Trophy, cashing in big-time… and then flamed out. My point is if the player continues to improve during that deal, you’ll pay. And the next long-term deal isn’t always great.
Meanwhile, a long-term could be great in a year where term is the new money if Saros works out the way the Preds think. He could be signed for a lower AAV but given more years. However, if this past year represents his peak, it ties you to a goalie you took a gamble on and are now stuck with for a long time. If the money makes sense for the Predators they’ll give him the term, but that could change depending on other negotiations and what happens with the expansion draft.
Then there’s the possibility of a qualifying offer and arbitration. Saros is definitely due for a raise from his $1.5M salary but the question is how much? Last season suggests he can be an NHL starting goaltender but doesn’t guarantee it. What price becomes acceptable? Robin Lehner was given a 5-year, $5M AAV deal by the Golden Knights last season. He was also a Vezina Trophy finalist and won a Jennings Trophy prior to signing that deal, so there was a bigger, more accomplished body of work. I could easily see the two sides starting out farther apart in negotiation and having to work towards the middle if they can, otherwise, Nashville can tender another qualifying offer for as little as a minimum raise and then go to arbitration over it. Unlikely, but an option.
Could the Vegas Golden Knights potentially some salary from Marc-Andre Fleury? I’m sure they will do everything possible to avoid doing so, but it also depends on the piece or pieces that come back the other way. Vegas would love to get its hands on a player like Ekholm, a defenseman who was rumored to be on the block this season but only has one year left on his current deal. If things don’t work out with Alec Martinez, the Golden Knights could have a short-term answer in that role. As much as the Golden Knights need a top center, I wouldn’t touch Duchene or Johansen who represent far too much money for far too little production.
Marc-Andre Fleury would be incredible insurance for the Predators, and for Vegas would give them more breathing room to either make a move or get Martinez re-signed along with other players.
Yes, there will be other, potentially cheaper alternatives out there for Nashville, but none with the pedigree of Fleury. With rare exceptions those players do not hit the open market, and for a good reason. Instead Nashville might be content to sign a budget contract for a vet or journeyman netminder, but that’s making a major gamble that Saros can repeat his numbers from last year without the safety net of a veteran like Rinne behind him. Will Nashville gamble on Saros and spend the money elsewhere? Or will they take a run at Marc-Andre Fleury? Time will tell, but I can only imagine the phone in VGK GM Kelly McCrimmon’s office must be ringing off the hook this week.