Stand Behind the Yellow Line

by Ryan

Do you remember what you were thinking three years ago?

For most people it’s hard to remember what they had for dinner last night, let alone something that happened over 1,000 days ago. Still, this weekend everyone was talking about Ryan Miller’s birthday and it made me think of this post. As always it started a bit abstract, but here’s the last bit, which is most important:

I’m not saying he has always been there, nor that I have a steadfast belief in his eternal fallibility; but it is good to think back on games like that and know he can pull through. I need that after the July we’ve had. So if Ryan Miller is going to be the face of this hockey team, well, I think things will be okay after all.

Happy Birthday, Ryan Miller. You get the keys to a hockey team.

I’m not going to lie, I really love that I wrote this post three years ago. The more I think about that summer and what it means, the more I realize that what really happened there has everything to do with Ryan Miller. When Drury and Briere departed the team was left with a huge gap in team leadership.

You can argue that players like Craig Rivet and Paul Gaustad filled that leadership role, and maybe Pominville and Roy and those guys as well, but let’s be serious: this is absolutely Ryan Miller’s team. Maybe it took a Vezina-winning season for everyone to get on board, but this really is Ryan Miller’s team.

The question is, what does that mean? Should a goaltender really be the heart and soul of a hockey team, and can a team organized around that structure be successful? Should other players step in and fill that role? What is the role of a goaltender, and, much differently, what is the role of Ryan Miller?

Okay, so I guess that’s more like six questions, but you get my point. Let’s try looking at this a different way: sports leagues are extremely reactionary. One team’s championship can set the course of a league for years to come, and that’s absolutely the case with the National Hockey League.

For example, Roberto Luongo is named the “captain” of the Canucks and suddenly Sabres fans wonder if something similar should happen with Ryan Miller. The Sabres win the President’s Trophy with speed and tightly officiated hockey games, and teams want to get smaller and faster. Anaheim wins the Stanley Cup and teams want to get bigger. Act and react.

If there is one thing that surprises me about the Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup it is how much I don’t care about it. I’m indifferent to the franchise, Pat Kane and any of that garbage I’m supposed to care about as a Buffalo sports fan. In fact, if there is one thing I care about that develops out of the Blackhawks winning the Cup it is this: a significantly different approach to goaltending when it comes to roster construction.

Think about it: both the Blackhawks and Flyers made it to the Stanley Cup finals on the strength of fluke goaltending performances. Chicago had a $5.625 million goaltender sitting on the bench for most of the spring, and Philadelphia went through at least 38 goaltenders during their playoff run.

Many Sabres fans will claim to be jealous of Chicago because their “win at all costs” push actually worked, unlike our chances with Briere and Drury. However, what is more of a threat to the way the Sabres work seems to be the theory that elite goaltending isn’t absolutely necessary in the playoffs.

Now don’t get me wrong, great goaltending is absolutely essential to winning a Stanley Cup. Goaltenders can steal games and entire series; and if you’re the Montreal Canadians, two series. However, the idea that it can come out of the ether, that you don’t need a franchise goaltender for great work between the pipes in the postseason; that can change the way a lot of teams look at their rosters.

It’s happened in other sports leagues and it’s bound to happen again. With the way free agency and the salary cap is these days, paying top dollar for goaltending may be seen by clubs as an unnecessary expense when they are plenty of mid-range UFAs searching for homes and rookie goaltenders can make big runs before they reach the open market.

In other words, Ryan Miller may not be completely necessary, and having a goaltender like him might not be the best way to win a Stanley Cup. Maybe. Of course it’s a very small sample size and the jury is still out for sure, but looking at the last year I think it’s easy to see why teams change their approach over the next few seasons.

Still, I’m very much okay with having a guy like Ryan Miller on my team. It’s not about the cap hit or whether he should be the leader on this team. What matters is that he is, that we have him, and that I have confidence in him as a leader and as the best goaltender in the league.

What I’m getting at here is that Ryan Miller did get the keys to the Sabres three years ago, and so far he’s done a pretty good job of keeping this team on the road. Traffic has been a problem and the GPS may be a bit buggy, but I like who’s behind the wheel on this team.

4 Comments

  1. James

    As a beer league goalie, I was on the “Miller isn’t worth his extension” kick a few years ago.

    To use some “Moneyball” thinking, I believe that top end goalies are overcompensated when compared to what you get out of an “average replacement player”.

    But, Ryan Miller has intangibles for the Sabres that can make him worth the cost IF the Sabres were to tweak things a bit.

    I believe that Ryan Miller would be a much better playoff goalie is his regular season workload were reduced to around 52 starts.

    Some may say “Why are you paying him top dollar if he can’t play 65 to 70 games?” And I’d say that I’d rather get to the dance with a more rested Miller than burn him out beforehand.

    If you look back at the Islanders SC teams, Billy Smith played roughly half of the regular season games before carrying the load in the playoffs.

    I wouldn’t go that far. But, I do believe that a rested Ryan Miller in the playoffs would be very beneficial to the Sabres.

    Another area that I think is undervalued in today’s game is an elite goalie coach like the Sabres used to have in Mitch Korn.

    The pipeline of good NHL goalies coming out of Nashville during Mitch’s tenure there is nuts. Dunham, Vokoun, Mason, Ellis, and Rinne. And they have a nice little pipeline with guys like Chet Pickard, Mark Dekanich, and Anders Lindback among their goalie prospects in the pipeline today.

  2. Ogre39666

    “Should a goaltender really be the heart and soul of a hockey team”

    Whether or not they should be, they almost always are. It’s the nature of the position, like an baseball team’s #1 starter or a Football team’s QB. Even if those guys are mediocre, they are still make up a disproportionate percentage of that team success or failure. Even in the Blackhawks example, Niemi was one of their core young, cheap guys. The thing that makes them seemingly an exception to the rule is that they didn’t see him as such 2 years ago when they signed Huet.

    Great thought provoking article.

  3. Sam

    Well-written, as always.

    As for whether a goaltender should be the heart and soul of a team- I say look at Marty Brodeur. Say what you will about the Devils Defence and the trap and all that nonsense but Brodeur is the backbone of that franchise and he has been for years. Many people forget that he was only in his second season when the Devils shut down the high-flying Red Wings IN FOUR GAMES to win the Stanley Cup. I think the Devils found an elite goalie and built around him. They have had some excellent defence over the years as well, but the last line of defence is the goalie and he has been more than solid.

    Similarly, look at the 1994 Stanley Cup winning Rangers team. They had Mark Messier and lots of talent but what they also had was Mike Richter, who was like a brick wall in the playoffs. I honestly think that Richter stopping Bure on the penalty shot in game 4 was the series changer.

    Look at the Red Wings of the 1990s. They were finally turning things around, and becoming a respectable team, but early on, they still didn’t have a proven goaltender. Chris Osgood had a lot of talent, but needed seasoning (see Round 1, game 7, 1994) Enter Mike Vernon- free agent pick up in the off season and lo.. they were in the finals the next year and Champions in 3. Goalies can make or break a team (and sometimes, as we saw this year during the playoffs, it’s all about timing.)

    You HAVE to have a goaltender to win games. Does he have to be flashy? No, but he has to stop pucks. And if you are lucky enough to find a really good goaltender who WANTS to play in your city, a la Ryan Miller, you’d do well to lock him up- into a contract and then turn him from merely good to great. That is what the Sabres did and it was smart.

    Ryan Miller has finally come into his own as a goalie. Now if the rest of the Sabres would just catch up, they’d be a force to be reckoned with..

    Just my thoughts and rambles about the whole scenario.

  4. ScottyMCSSProSportsDaily

    My broomball team entered the playoffs with an undefeated record this past season. The trophy was ours for the pluckin.’

    Yes, broomball.

    Anyway, our goaltender got plucked away from us for the 1st elimination game. He couldn’t get a baby-sitter. This guy never missed a game before. A flurry of emails followed, as we tried to scrape up a replacement.

    We lost the game 10-7, largely due to that replacement we found, someone’s nephew who couldn’t seem to stop 80 footers.

    But we also lost because we were running scared in front of him – we didn’t trust what lay behind us, and it held us back. Without our trusted man between the pipes, our dream season was over in one night.

    And now I am going to go cry into my beer.