Friday night, the Sabres closed out another season of spectacular failure. They did it with Ryan Miller in net, possibly for the last time.
Miller has long been a player who draws attention to himself, be it on the ice or in the locker room with his sometimes emotional, rarely uninteresting interviews. So naturally, the notion that Friday may have been Miller’s last game in a Sabre uniform had Sabre Nation buzzing. Lots of intelligent opinions have been put forth in recent days across blogs and Twitter, and here, I will attempt to give you my own (although I make no promises of its intelligence).
In short, I have very mixed emotions about this.
I used to believe (as recently as February) that there were untouchables on this Sabres team. Vanek, Myers, Pominville, and Miller were players I’d have considered off-limits, guys who a Stanley Cup-winning team could (and should) be built around. It was unlikely to me that Darcy Regier could flip any of these players for a return significant enough to overcome the loss of actually having that player on the roster… you know, if we wanted the Sabres to contend for anything other than a lottery pick.
The trade of Jason Pominville to Minnesota changed that mindset. Hell, it pulled that thought out of my brain and smashed it to tiny bits. If Pominville can fetch a forward and a goalie that may eventually become quality starters, as well as a first and a second round pick, what might the return for Miller be? Suddenly, everyone is tradeable!
Miller was a goaltender we thought could lead us to the promised land. He hasn’t. And now that he’s 32 and poised to receive another high-dollar contract next summer, it seems like we’re all ready to give up on that possibility. But it’s not just Miller’s fault that the Sabres are unsuccessful, and ironically, that may be the very reason he needs to go.
It’s an easy statement to make in hindsight, but I think it’s a widely-held belief by now that the “old core” of Vanek, Roy, Pominville, and Miller was a rotten one from the start. Regier has seemingly come to realize this as well and has begun over the last nine months to dismantle that core. So far, so good: he clearly won the Roy for Ott/Pardy swap (evidenced by the fact that Derek Roy is no longer a Dallas Star), and on paper, the haul for Pominville is quite impressive.
Miller, more so than Pominville or Vanek, has represented the culture of the Buffalo Sabres for the last few years. Trading him would radically change the mental makeup of that team. If that’s part of what a rebuild should achieve, then the choice is obvious.
The problem with all of this, at least in my own mind: I like Ryan Miller. I don’t want him to leave.
I’ve written plenty in the past defending Miller. Stats be damned, I genuinely like what he brings to the table - not just on the ice, but also in the locker room. He’s emotional, he’s thoughtful, he’s brutally honest, he’s passionate, he’s candid. I still believe that these are good attributes. Not only do they make him a leader, but they also make him vastly different than your average boring, robotic NHLer (and by extension, that makes him the best interview on the team by far - something for which you’d think the media would love him, but what do I know).
Most importantly, he’s still a good goaltender – and I think he takes more flak than he should. Consider the elimination at the hands of the Rangers two Fridays ago. Perhaps my point of view is a bit skewed because I’m not someone who boos, but as the Bronx cheers rained down on Miller I felt it was a bit undeserved. Sure, the mishandled puck that Ryan Clowe put into the net for a 3-0 Rangers lead was a terrible play. There’s five seconds left in the period - flop on the damn puck, get a faceoff, go into the locker room down 2-0 and stop the bleeding.
But when pucks get deflected off random Sabre appendages, that’s a little unfair. Maybe those who booed didn’t see replays of the first two goals? (I don’t know – I was there and saw them rather clearly myself.) And not for nothing, but the entire team – not just Miller – decided to take the night off.
(There's nothing wrong with booing, by the way. It's just not how I roll. Boo away if it's warranted.)
As far as I’m concerned, you can place any NHL goaltender behind the craptastic defense Miller had in front of him this year and expect similar numbers. I don’t think Miller gives up nearly as many soft goals as he used to back when he earned the nickname “Mr. Softee”, and I wonder sometimes if that perception is still held against him.
That’s the nature of the Buffalo sports fan, though. Hard to please, quick to anger, doesn’t forget anything. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. As a friend of mine is fond of saying: “There’s self-loathing… and then there’s being a Buffalo sports fan.” Damn it, we just want things to go right once. We’re in the neighborhood of 100 combined non-championship Bills and Sabres seasons, sometimes without a prayer of contending and other times coming agonizingly close before succumbing. Haven’t we suffered enough? We’ve earned the right to be more demanding, haven’t we?
I still believe Miller is a goaltender who can help the Sabres break that Curse of Buffalo. Quality goaltenders don’t exactly grow on trees, and frankly I think the notion that you can win a Cup with garbage between the pipes because it almost happened that one time in 2010 is ridiculous. I’m not convinced a goaltender of equal value can be found in trade or on the free agent market, I’m not convinced that 53 games of Jhonas Enroth is enough to demonstrate that he’s ready for 65-70+ games per year, and I don't know if David Leggio or Matt Hackett are ready to contribute in the NHL.
That being said: this team is nowhere near contending for a Stanley Cup. Logically, moving Miller for players and/or picks to further the rebuild is the right thing to do. Although my emotional side still thinks “Eff that noise, you like Miller and want him to remain a central part of this team going forward”, I realize that my logical side must win out. It’s imperative, though, that the Sabres get significant value if Emotional Me is to be pacified.
Oh, and one more thing. To the guy who gloated “say goodbye to Miller, it’s his last game!” at me outside the First Niagara Center Friday night - regardless of what the Sabres do about Ryan Miller, you’re still a dumbass.