Juuse Saros: How the NHL’s Smallest Goalie Plays Bigger Than Everyone Else

Juuse Saros: How the NHL’s Smallest Goalie Plays Bigger Than Everyone Else

What if I told you the goalie who had the highest rate of shots hit him square in the chest was also the goalie with the smallest target?

It seems strange, doesn’t it?

Intuitively, you might think a bigger goalie, who takes up more of the net would get hit in the chest most often. However, this season that honor went to the smallest goalie in the league, Juuse Saros of the Nashville Predators who is generously listed at 5’11, 180 pounds.

What does this mean and why does it matter?

Well, the idea here is that goalies who get hit in the chest most often are also likely among the best positional goaltenders. The more you get hit in the chest, the more you are square to the shooter, and measuring the percentage of shots against that hit a goalie in the chest would be one way to quantify sound positional goaltending.

It makes sense to me but evaluating goalies can be tricky at the best of times so I ran the idea by former NHL goalie and current TSN analyst Jamie McLennan to see if he agreed.

“Absolutely,” said McLennan. “A lot of time goaltenders are told to square their shoulders up to the puck. If the puck hits you in the chest in between the shoulders that means you’ve adjusted properly, quickly, and are set.”

Why is that important?

“The advantage of getting hit in the chest is puck control,” McLennan continued. “A lot of times it will hit and die. You’re not going to explode it off your chest and pop it back into the slot. So, there are advantages to being in great position and getting hit in the chest.”

“It’s not a sexy save but, as a former goaltender, watching a guy make it look easy, that’s some of the best positional play you can have as a goaltender.”

Strong positional play has long been considered a strength of Saros’ who has stopped a league-high 16.9 percent of shots against him with his chest.

I wanted to dig a little deeper though to separate some noise out of the equation, like low-danger point shots and bad angle shots that can be easily gloved down or kicked away. To do this, I looked specifically at shots taken from the home plate, slot area where approximately 75 percent of goals are scored, year-over-year. These shots have a much better chance of beating goalies than perimeter shots and are typically more difficult to get your body in front of. Once again, Saros’ name was at the top of the list.

The other goalies on this list are 6’3, 6’3 and 6’6. The fact that Saros is able to block as many shots as he does with the front of his body is a testament to just how good he is at reading, reacting and executing.

Did this surprise McLennan?

“No, because being a smaller goaltender, you have to rely on your positioning as a tool – a weapon to make saves. Goaltenders that are 6’5 or 6’7 have the luxury of potentially being slightly late on a read of an adjustment and they can still use their size to their advantage. With Saros, if there is a play that’s late or hesitated on, the read is not clean, he exposes a lot of net. That’s why he has to work quick, fast to position, and take as much ice as possible because of his size.”

Some big goalies play small in the net. I’d argue that no goalie plays bigger than Saros. He’s one of the most positionally sound goalies in the NHL because he has to be.

The data suggests Saros squares-up as well as any goalie. The video shows a goalie with terrific lateral movement who can read and react in time to get his entire body in front of shots.

“He’s got terrific feet,” added McLennan. “It all starts from identifying the read, getting ahead of it by timing it properly, and then getting hit and smothering the rebound. The best positional goaltenders seem to make that look easy.” 

Saros does a great job of reading the play in front of him and moving well laterally. You don’t see a lot of desperation saves – more often than not, it’s a quick shuffle of the feet and square to the shooter on cross-ice passing plays.

That’s not to say this is the only way to be an effective goalie. Some goalies are blockers, some rely more on their reflexes and athleticism. I doubt Dominik Hasek got hit square in the chest too often compared to other goalies and he was arguably the best to ever play the position. It’s not one size fits all.

That said, in Saros’ case, he’s able to excel at the position despite being the smallest goalie in the NHL because of how big he makes himself in the net – because of how often he’s able to square-up to opposing shooters. And excel he did down the stretch for the Predators, who sat 11th in the Western Conference before Saros took over the starters net from Pekka Rinne in early February. From February 4th until the NHL hit pause on the season, Saros won a league-high 10 games and ranked 3rd with a .940 save percentage among the 32 goalies who played at least 500 minutes.

Any notion that the Preds defense deserves the lion’s share of credit can be put to rest by isolating Saros’ performance from the team in front of him. Nashville had an expected goals against (a reflection of team defense) of 3.14 per-game in the games Saros played from Feb. 4th on – the 10th highest total a goalie faced in that time. Saros’ actual goals-against average, 2.02. That differential of 1.12 from his expected goals against to his actual goals against ranked 3rd among qualified goalies. As for the season overall, Saros has been a top-10 goalie in terms of expected vs actual goals against and is tied for 5th in shutouts with 4.

Saros is proof that it’s not the size of the goalie but the amount of net he covers that matters most.

With the NHL formally announcing its return-to-play plan, the Predators are set to face the Arizona Coyotes if / when the league returns this season. The Coyotes tandem of Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta has been one of the best in the NHL this season but that doesn’t automatically give them the edge in goal. Saros was playing as well as any goalie in the NHL when the league hit pause. If he can pick up where he left off, the Predators will be a tough out.