Ryan Miller and St. Louis sure looked like an ideal match at first. He went 7-0-1 in his first eight games after arriving from Buffalo via a trade in late February. The Blues were THN’s Stanley Cup pick, and we viewed Miller as the goalie to take them all the way.
The honeymoon phase fizzled quickly, however. The Blues ended the regular season with six straight losses and Miller started five, allowing at least three goals each time. The slump cost St. Louis the Central Division and led to a matchup with the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks. Miller wasn’t the reason St. Louis lost in six games, but he didn’t steal any. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews beat him with backbreaking overtime winners in Games 4 and 5. He posted an .897 save percentage.
Miller’s future is cloudy for the second straight summer. He’s 34 in July and an unrestricted free agent. Pundits can’t decide if he’s overrated or underrated, one good situation away from recapturing his 2010 Vezina Trophy form or doomed never to win the big game. Miller declined a request to discuss his future.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, for his part, reserves judgment given the sample size.
“I wish we had more practices with him,” Hitchcock says. “Because we had played four or five less games than anybody, our March and April were absolutely packed. We had very limited time working with Ryan and the rest of the players.”
‘Hitch’ compares the situation to when Ed Belfour joined the Dallas Stars, then helmed by Hitchcock, in 1997. But there was one crucial difference.
“Eddie came to us in training camp and exhibition, and then the start of league play, and there was a two-month adjustment phase,” Hitchcock says. “Ryan came to us at the trade deadline, so we were still in somewhat of an adjustment phase, but he was good. It’s the handoffs between the goalies and the defensemen, it’s the way you play in front of the net, it’s the way you play odd-man rushes. When you’ve been in the same program for a dozen years and then it changes overnight, there’s an adjustment phase.”
Is Miller worth ponying up for? One Western Conference executive believes so. He says, all things being equal, he’d pursue Miller in free agency, and values him in the $6-million range.
“Certainly you scrutinize goaltending more,” he says. “But if you really look at it, a guy like Stephen Weiss played only a handful of games the year before, and his value didn’t get hurt at all. He ended up signing a multi-year deal. If you’re a good player, you’re still going to have value some place.”
Shortly after the Miller trade, I asked then Blues goalie coach Corey Hirsch about his expectations. Hirsch predicted an awkward transition to a decreased workload. The Blues have finished no worse than third in shots against four straight seasons, so Miller, peppered in Buffalo, would have to adjust to the Ken Dryden effect. In 2013-14, Miller saw 40 or more shots 10 times in 40 games with the Sabres and posted an SP of .922 or better every time. He faced 40 once with the Blues in 19 regular season games and once in the playoffs, always clearing the .922 mark. He fares better with lots of shots.
“The last few years he’s been under siege (in Buffalo), and maybe his focus stays being under pressure more than it does with a team like St. Louis,” the executive says.
Miller also may feel a pull toward the Pacific, as his actress wife Noureen DeWulf resides in Los Angeles. The San Jose Sharks pulled Antti Niemi twice in the playoffs and would be an ideal suitor for Miller. For what it’s worth, the Sharks gave up the sixth-least shots in the NHL in 2013-14.