Since the start of 2014, Ryan Miller has been a fixture in the hockey world’s Twittersphere and blogosphere, much more so than he has been at the First Niagara Center, or in upstate New York in general. It’s understandable, Miller is the most coveted net minder thought to be available as we near the March 5 NHL trade deadline, and maybe more importantly, the Olympic roster (trade) freeze that goes into effect this Friday, February 7th.
But this Blogo-Twitter attention is somewhat startling and surprising to a Blues fan living in the (formerly) Northeast and, now, Atlantic Division region, and gets to watch him play on a consistent basis. When I talk with colleagues and friends in St Louis, there is overwhelming support and excitement to bring Ryan Miller to St Louis as the starting goaltender.
But my question to them is… Why?
If you’ve followed my tone over the last few months, you’ll understand that anything short of a Stanley Cup appearance will be a disappointment for myself and (hopefully) most Blues fans alike.
To me, that makes all of the discussion of moving key players, prospects and/or picks to get Miller to St Louis such a contradictory idea. Why would the Blues want to sacrifice other areas of their game to bring in a guy who has never really won anything significant in his pro career? Don’t get me wrong, I understand that Ryan Miller, as an individual, is a solid NHL goalie and has proven it over the past decade, whether it was leading an upstate New York team deep into the playoffs or starring for Team USA at the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Hell, he was the Hobey Baker award winner in 2001 as the top player in college hockey for Michigan State. And nine years after that, at the games in 2010, he truly made his statement as a legitimate backbone for a hockey team when he won the MVP, as a silver medalist, at the Olympics in Vancouver. He went on to finish that season up by taking home the Vezina Trophy, as the NHL’s best regular season goaltender.
On the surface, the accolades mentioned above are quite impressive. You’re probably thinking – Who doesn’t want a former Vezina Trophy winner on the roster?
Well, allow me to take you on a trip down memory lane, one that neither Miller, nor his agent, former Blues net minder Mike Luit, would like to travel down.
The first stop on our trip takes us to Rochester, where Miller was the starter for Buffalo’s AHL affiliate the Americans. In 2004-2005, Miller led the Americans in a regular season that saw them finish in 1st place in their division, conference and league. But as soon as the games became meaningful, Miller started to break down and Rochester lost in a stunning divisional round defeat to the Moose of Manitoba.
But after that impressive regular season in the minors, Miller got the starting gig for the big club just down highway 90 in Buffalo, earning the nickname ‘Miller Time’. In 2005-2006, Miller and the Sabres finished 4th in the East and made it all the way to the Conference finals where they lost, again, in dramatic fashion to the Carolina Hurricanes in seven games, as Miller allowed three or more goals in five of the seven games.
The 2006-2007 campaign was not much different, as the Sabres won the Presidents’ Trophy for top team in the regular season and made it all the way back to the Eastern Conference finals. Unfortunately only to lose, again, to the Ottawa Senators in five games, as Miller let up a series-clinching OT goal, at home, against Senators former captain, Daniel Alfredsson. This was the last time the Buffalo Sabres have come close to sniffing a Cup appearance over the past seven years.
The next season, 2007-2008, saw Miller competing in the biggest game of the regular season, the first NHL Winter Classic, held at Ralph Wilson Stadium in snowy Buffalo. The New Years’ day classic saw Miller lead his team in a tightly contested matchup against the Pittsburgh Penguins that ended in a shootout. With the pressure on, Miller again showed his inability to succeed in clutch situations. Kris Letang buried a backhander over Miller’s blocker, and then Sidney Crosby put the nail in the coffin with a five-hole goal on Miller that ended the game.
This would not be the last time Crosby beat Miller while the eyes of the hockey world were watching. Two years later, in 2010, Miller lead the team USA squad to a surprising Gold Medal game appearance against a hometown Canadian club in Vancouver, BC. With the game tied 2-2 at the end of regulation, Miller had a chance to show his dominance and give his country a Gold Medal for the first time since the Miracle on Ice in 1980. But yet again, Miller crumbled and let in another soft, five-hole goal against Crosby only 7 minutes into the first overtime.
Since that Olympic let down in 2010, things haven’t exactly been peachy in Buffalo for Ryan Miller, as the Sabres have continued to lose, while his name is brought up annually at the trade deadline. It got so bad last season that he and his teammates got booed off the ice after a home game last February. Miller is starting to become as unpopular in bars around Buffalo as John Young, the controversial restaurateur who claims he created the first buffalo wing in the 1960’s, contradicting the long-standing belief that buffalo wings were created by the Anchor Bar’s original owner, Teressa Bellissimo.
And while we may never really know where the delicious, hockey-perfect meal came from, one thing is certain around Buffalo, Ryan Miller is not a guy who can put a team on his back and win a championship. Because he’s never done it, at any professional level.
Miller is a guy who benefits from what I like to call the Luongo Syndrome. This is when media and fans become obsessed with a goalies’ statistical output during the regular season. There are these goalies that play for underwhelming teams but put up high save percentages and goals against averages because they play an exorbitant amount of minutes and face an absurd amount of shots.
This is why Roberto Luongo was so coveted himself when he played for the Florida Panthers. But just ask Canucks fans how the Luongo gamble paid off for them.
And if you want to play the statistics game, let’s take a look how Miller stacks up against the Blues tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot this season.
First off, Ryan Miller will turn 34 this year, not exactly in the prime years of his career, compared to Halak and Elliot who are both 28. The best comparison is really between Halak and Miller, who have both played 38 games, with Halak winning 23 of those games versus Miller’s 14 wins. Actually Miller and Elliot both have 14 wins, although Elliot has started 15 fewer games. Save percentage definitely goes to Miller, stopping 92.5% of shots faced, versus Halak saving 91.4% and Elliot, a tick higher, stopping 91.7% of shots faced. But goals against averages and shutouts really show how dominant Halak and Elliot have been compared to Miller. Miller has zero shutouts this year, Halak has four and Elliot has three. Halak is letting up an average of 2.27 goals a game, Elliot 2.1 goals a game, while Miller lets in 2.68 goals per game on average.
There is no denying that the Buffalo Sabres are a significantly worse all-around team compared to the St Louis Blues, but there is also no denying that Miller has not played at the top of his game; or maybe, his best days in the crease are behind him.
I urge all Blues fans to take a step back and take a critical look at the current numbers and historical track record of Miller.
Also, look at the other potential options to add at this year’s trade deadline. There are impact forwards being dangled out there that could have a much more significant role in the chase for the Cup this spring. Proven goal scorers like Thomas Vanek, Mike Cammalleri, Matt Moulson and Sam Gagner. Or veteran leaders like Ray Whitney, Olli Jokinen, Steve Ott or Ryan Smyth.
The addition of just one of these top six forwards will give the Blues the depth up front that is absolutely needed in a seven game Western conference series against the Blackhawks, Sharks, Ducks, Kings, and more importantly, in the finals against skilled teams like the Bruins or Crosby and the Penguins.
Have faith in Halak and Elliot. They are good enough to win if the Blues can get consistent scoring from all four lines up front. Don’t believe in the Miller hype. The odds of a 34-year-old coming to a new city and franchise, changing teams for the first time in his career, and taking us to the Holy (Cup) Land is not even unlikely, it’s almost unimaginable.
And most importantly, I say this to you Ryan Miller supporters: in St Louis, Missouri, it never has been and never will be, Miller Time.