There will come a time in the next few seasons when goaltender Juuse Saros is asked to take the reins for the Nashville Predators. Some expect that to be as soon as the coming campaign, what with incumbent No. 1 netminder Pekka Rinne one year away from unrestricted free agency. Others project it to happen more gradually as Saros takes a heavier part-time role this season, graduates into a split-time position alongside a re-signed Rinne in two campaigns and commands the crease in three seasons’ time.
And when that time comes, no matter when it is, the Predators will be laughing. Laughing because on Monday, with Saros in need of a new deal, Nashville was able to ink the 23-year-old heir apparent to the starter throne to a three-year, $4.5 million contract. Laughing because at $1.5 million annually for the next three seasons, their presumptive future starter will spend the next three campaigns in the Predators’ crease with a cap hit commensurate with that of a veteran career backup. And laughing because signing Saros at that amount of money is yet another way Nashville has flexed their mastery of the salary cap world to ensure that they’re going to stay competitive for a very, very long time.
The Predators’ excellent cap management didn’t exactly start with Saros, either, but his new pact may be what illustrates it best. That’s not to say what Saros got isn’t entirely fair, though.
While there are few who don’t forecast Saros to be the next-in-line in the Nashville crease, his body of work is modest. He’s posted a .924 save percentage and 2.40 goals-against average across 48 games in the regular season. He also has six playoff games under his belt, and though all of those have come as a second-stringer, he’s been equally strong in his performance. No better than this past playoff run when he posted an impressive .952 SP and 1.06 GAA in relief of Rinne. But Saros wasn’t entering the summer with a boatload of bargaining power. He had no arbitration rights and no control over his future beyond a possible holdout for more money. Within the system and the boundaries that exist for his level of restricted free agent, it’s a tidy, low-priced bridge deal that can lead to a far bigger payday later.
Paying Saros when the time comes is something the Predators know they can deal with down the road, though, which is why the low-risk, high-reward contract they’ve signed him to now is a stroke of brilliance from a front office that is starting to make a living on that kind of thing. Consider the kind of value Nashville is getting from its forward group right now.
The Predators have Filip Forsberg locked into a six-year, $36-million contract, over which time he is tied for 28th in goals with 57 and 41st in points with 122 with ample room to continue to grow over the remaining four years of the deal. Likewise, Viktor Arvidsson played the first season of his seven-year deal that carries a $4.25-million cap hit in 2017-18 and fired home 29 goals and 61 points, finishing tied for 33rd and 60th in the respective categories. Meanwhile, Nashville extended Kyle Turris, their second-line center, on a six-year, $36-million pact that looks well below market value given the money doled out in free agency this summer. And the highest paid depth player on the roster this coming campaign look as though they’ll be Nick Bonino ($4.1 million) and Calle Jarnkrok ($2 million). No other bottom-six skater makes more than $1.1 million.
All told, Nashville’s forward corps is currently projected to cost about $38.96 million against the cap. And while that total may seem like an awful lot, note that the Predators’ forward group will cost about $7 million less than that of the Oilers, with Edmonton paying the equivalent of more than half of Nashville’s total forward salary, a sum of $21 million, to Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. The Predators are absolutely getting bang for their buck, too. While the individual game breakers may be few and far between, Nashville’s offense-by-committee chipped in to give them the sixth-highest goal total in the NHL last season.
And this is to say nothing of the defense corps the Predators have built without breaking the bank. Not to pick on Edmonton, but they’re widely regarded as a team desperate for help on the blueline while Nashville is often heralded as having the best back end in the league. Yet, per CapFriendly, the average price of the Predators’ seven rearguards is $3.04 million. The average price of the Oilers’ six defensemen is $3.41 million.
The cost-effective spending has most certainly paid dividends for the Predators already, be it in the ability to pay an arguably higher-than-expected price for Ryan Johansen or in having the room necessary to absorb the additional $1 million-plus in annual salary that came along with the P.K. Subban-Shea Weber swap with the Montreal Canadiens. Now, though, the greatest impact of the Predators’ savvy financial work is that the long-term outlook in Nashville is fantastic.
Despite knowing full well that defenseman Ryan Ellis will be due a sizeable raise from his $2.5 million ahead of next off-season and that captain Roman Josi is due a big-money contract extension before he becomes a free agent in 2020-21, there’s almost no reason for concern in Nashville.
With every key cog, particularly those with some negotiating power, locked up, the Predators not only have $9.6 million to spend ahead of the coming campaign, but are in line to have upwards of $23 million with which to work come next off-season. That should be more than enough money to pay Ellis and bring back Rinne, if it’s deemed necessary. With an additional $11 million opening up the following summer, you can already pencil in Josi’s payday, too. Really, truly, it’s not until 2022-23 when Forsberg, Subban and Mattias Ekholm are up that any real cap crunch even appears possible in Nashville. And by that time, the Predators will have Johansen, Turris and Arvidsson locked up to team-friendly deals, and it’s likely the same will be said of Ellis and Josi.
The key to sustained success in the salary cap era has been more than just acquiring talent, it’s been managing to keep the whole thing together and propping the so-called championship window open as long as possible. And the Saros signing is yet another example of how the Predators’ front office has ensured that Nashville’s title aspirations will remain alive and well for several seasons to come.
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