By definition, the Hart Trophy is awarded to the player judged most valuable to his team. NHL All-Stars like Sidney Crosby, Dominik Hasek and Wayne Gretzky have all taken home this high honor. This year the obvious choices to be finalists, but just because it’s obvious doesn’t always mean it’s right.
I’m not sure if there was any player more important or valuable to his team than Juuse Saros. Simply put, if he did not finish the season the way he did, the Nashville Predators would not have made a postseason appearance. The Predators goaltender had a rollercoaster of a season, but in the end, prevailed and led his team to round one of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. A bunch of names have been thrown into the ring to take home the Hart Trophy, and Saros should be among them.
Who Are the Front Runners?
If you ask 10 people, possibly all 10, will say Connor McDavid deserves the Hart Trophy after the number he put in the regular season. Yes, he had an astonishing season, and no one can argue with 105 points in 56 games, which is why he should win the Ted Lindsay Trophy. My point every season is people are quick to hand McDavid the Hart Trophy when there are other players who play more a critical role in getting their team into the playoffs.
Toronto forward Auston Matthews had a commendable season. He lit the lamp 41 goals this season and won the Maurice Richard Trophy. He also led the league with 12 game-winning goals. Matthews missed a handful of games with injury, which makes his numbers even more impressive. He finished the season with 66 points which was one point less than Mitch Marner, who led the team with 67 points. Yes, Matthews was crucial to their postseason appearance, but he probably had the most help out of all the candidates.
An Argument for Saros
Nashville’s season began to turn around in the middle of March. During that time, Saros had a .945 save percentage (SV%) in 20 starts, and no other goaltender in the league had a SV% above .923. On March 20, the Predators faced the Panthers in an eventual 2-0 victory for Florida. He made 47 saves and earned the second star of the game even though his team walked away with no points. For the last two months of the season, the Predators climbed from 26th in the league to 13th claiming the last spot in the Central Division.
“I’d say Juuse’s a huge part of our success,” Pekka Rinne said during an interview with the Tennessean. “At the same time, it always goes hand in hand. Our team has improved a lot. But he has been the backbone of this team. Gives us a chance to win every night.” (from “Pekka Rinne, Juuse Saros and a Nashville Predators playoff run to savor: ‘He has been the backbone'”, The Tennessean, 05/17/2021)
Back in February, Saros’ future with the Predators was questionable as his numbers were less than ideal. Once he came back from injury, his game reached a new level. As my colleague Jeff Middleton explained, Saros led the league with 16.06 goals saved above expected. That was nearly five ahead of Connor Hellebuyck.
Deserving to be in the Top Five
There have been seven that won the most sought-after trophy at the NHL Awards. Most recently, Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens won the award for his performance in the 2014-15 season. In 2015, Devan Dubnyk finished fourth in Hart Trophy voting after he helped the Minnesota Wild make a surprising playoff appearance. The next season, Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals finished fourth in voting. The 2016-17 season was the last time a goalie was a finalist. Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets finished third in voting behind Crosby and McDavid. That season he had 41 wins, a 2.06 GAA, and a save percentage of .931. From March 18 – May 1, Saros’ GAA was 1.83, and his save percentage was .945.
“He’s a stud,” Ryan Johansen said of Saros after a double-overtime victory in Game 4. “He’s a big part of our team success and our success right now and winning these last two games. Like I said, he’s a stud, and he’s going to keep doing his thing and we’re going to keep counting on him.” Saros stopped 58 shots in the game, which is now a franchise record.
By literal definition of the Hart Trophy, Saros is a clear-cut finalist. He single-handedly got his team into the postseason, and even though they were eliminated in Round 1, it had nothing to do with the performance of Saros. He has emerged as Rinne’s successor and proved he can be an x-factor and difference-maker for the Nashville Predators.
Kristy has been contributing to The Hockey Writers since March of 2021. She is thrilled to be putting her journalism degree to use and is a credentialed correspondent covering the New Jersey Devils. Kristy is also a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. You can follow her journey on Twitter @InStilettos_NHL and Instagram SkatingInStilettos.