Why the Ryan Miller experiment failed in St. Louis

Ryan Miller

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 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 of those games, 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.

In two months, “When will the Blues re-sign Miller?” became “Should the Blues re-sign Miller”? Dismissing goalie coach Corey Hirsch suggested the Blues brass were directing blame for their early exit away from Miller, but in the end, GM Doug Armstrong decided to wipe the slate clean, announcing St. Louis was moving on from Miller and retaining UFA Brian Elliott.

How unhappy were the Blues with the goalie who, along with Steve Ott, cost them Chris Stewart, Jaroslav Halak, William Carrier, a first-round pick and a conditional third-round pick? 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, now poised to hit the open market, worth ponying up for? One Western Conference executive believes so. He says, all things being equal, he’d pursue Miller in free agency. He doesn’t think the playoffs hurt Miller too much, and values him in the $6-million range. “Certainly you scrutinize goaltending more,” the executive 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.”

All things weren’t equal in St. Louis’ case. Jake Allen, 23, is the fourth-ranked goaltending prospect in the sport according to THN Future Watch. He’s as NHL-ready as it gets, having acquitted himself well during call-ups, and Blues GM Doug Armstrong went on record saying Allen will make the NHL roster next season. That left room for only Miller or  Elliott, who posted superior numbers to Miller’s and is almost five years younger. Considering Elliott’s new cap hit of $2.5 million is about half what Miller will get, if not less, this decision was a no-brainer.

Shortly after the trade a few months ago, I asked Hirsch about his expectations for Miller in St. Louis. Hirsch predicted a necessary transition to a decreased workload. The Blues had 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. Under Hitchcock, the Blues weren’t about to start allowing more. “The last few years he’s been under siege (in Buffalo), and maybe his focus stays being under pressure more than it did with a team like St. Louis,” the Western Conference executive says.

All things considered, it was hardly a surprise the Blues and Miller realized they’re weren’t that into each other. Now the speculation begins. Will the Sharks quit on Antti Niemi or will the Ducks decide John Gibson isn’t ready for prime time, freeing up a spot for MIller in California to be near his actress wife Noureen DeWulf? Will Pittsburgh seek a successor to Marc-Andre Fleury? Time will tell. But the numbers suggest Miller will fare better on a team that likes to trade chances with opponents.

Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blogFor more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazineFollow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin

This is an updated version of a feature that appears in the June 23 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.