My dad and I could never agree on Ryan Miller. For years, he bemoaned Miller’s performance.
“He can’t make the big save,” he’d complain. “He’s never going to win a Cup.”
I said he was crazy. I said Miller just needed a better team in front of him. He hadn’t had much of that for most of his career. If Ryan Miller had the right team in front of him, he could absolutely win a Stanley Cup.
I guess that’s why even as adults we occasionally have to mind our manners and heed our elders. While I was busy reading the narrative everyone else in Buffalo was reading, my dad may have been right. Ryan Miller may be a good, but rarely great, goaltender, incapable of carrying a team through a playoff round the way we sometimes thought he could.
The narrative will always read that Buffalo never quite gave Ryan Miller the prime opportunity to win the Cup. Even though they were the best team in the league the year after the lockout and the President’s Trophy winner the year after, it was easy to forgive Miller some bad goals. Those were, after all, his first two seasons as a starter in the NHL. He never had as good of a chance to win a Cup as those first two years. Until this year, that is. And in this, his first great chance at a Cup in seven years, Ryan Miller and the St. Louis Blues failed against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. Now we’re left in Buffalo wondering if the former face of our franchise was as big of a sham as the rest of the team was.
I don’t blame Ryan Miller for another St. Louis collapse. You don’t lose a series-deciding game 5-1, then blame your goalie. You don’t lose a game 2-0 and blame your goalie. You don’t give up a breakaway to the other team’s best player in overtime. But in the playoffs sometimes you need your goalie to just make up for some dumb stuff. Miller was never quite up to that challenge, sporting a now-famous .897 save percentage in his six playoff starts.
The career numbers don’t harm Miller’s legacy. His .915 save percentage is even across both the regular season and the playoffs. Those are solid starter’s numbers. Miller was a solid player on an occasionally solid team that slipped over the course of six years. But consider that evenness in regular season and playoff play. Again, the numbers are solid, but not excellent. Consider someone with excellent numbers. Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins had a .930 save percentage in 58 games this season. In five games so far in the playoffs, he has a .961. Last season gives us a better scope of his improvement. Rask had a .929 in last regular season, and a .940 in the playoffs.
The best goalies get better numbers in the playoffs because the team is playing tighter defensively, thus making the shots come from lower percentage areas. The best goalies shut down those shots and are only beaten by the unbeatable. Not all regular season studs improve in the playoffs, of course, but the goalies you want are the goalies who play even better in the biggest moments. Ryan Miller had some great playoff games, but he never really had a great playoff series in Buffalo. As it turns out, it was more than just the team in front of him.
In Buffalo, he’ll always be remembered fondly and rightfully so. Miller was among the better, more consistent goalies in the league since the season-long ’04 lockout. It was hard to blame him for the team’s failures, especially in the last few seasons. But how indicative is it of Buffalo’s expectations that one of the best players on a team that hasn’t won a playoff series since 2007 is revered as some great loss? Ryan Miller was a good goalie who couldn’t make the St. Louis Blues any better than they were before that trade. That’s basically what we lost.
He’ll be 34 next season, so it’s not too late for Miller to change all of this. It only takes one great playoff run to cement a goalie’s legacy in NHL history. For now though, Ryan Miller is just another guy who embodied the stunted expectations of the most scarred, beaten sports city in the country.
The Sabres are moving in another path now. Hopefully one that ends on higher peaks than we were taken to by Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek and the rest of the crew that was unfairly and prematurely crowned by the expectations of a whole city. I wish Miller and Vanek and everyone else nothing but the best. But now that Buffalo is detached from all of them, I have to say, I don’t miss that era and I am looking forward to what comes next in Buffalo. Maybe this time management can hold a different standard for the incoming talent. If they do, we just might see results that we never saw in the previous era.