Friday, March 2, 2012

I blame Ryan Miller (and other thoughts)

Think about it.

Ryan Miller just finished stopping 82 shots in back-to-back games. He got the shutout in each.

It's the first time that a goalie has done that since 2010 when Miller did it in his Vezina winning season. It was the first time it was done on the road since the Bruins Tim Thomas did it back in 2008.

No small feat.

Miller has been hot lately. But he's been ramping it up for quite a while. He seemed to have bottomed out, along with the team, during their franchise-record 12-game road losing streak that finally ended in New Jersey on Jan. 24.

He entered that game with a 3.15 goals against average and a .897 save percentage. Since that game in New Jersey he's gone 10-2-3 with four shutouts (including a shutout in a shootout loss to the NY Rangers Feb. 1,) his goals against average is down to 2.58 and his save percentage is up to .915. Both of those latter numbers are right around his career numbers.

Those are not Dominik Hasek/Martin Brodeur elite numbers, but what he's done, especially after the departure of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, is carry the team on his back for long stretches and be consistent enough to keep them in the playoff race most years, like he's doing this year.

Without Miller this season the team would be near the bottom of the league, just like they were when he was slumping/recovering from the Milan Lucic hit.

And if you take him out of the equation for 2007/08 and 2008/09, the team probably would have had a lottery pick instead of mid-first rounders. Although they did well with Tyler Myers at #12 in 2008, Zack Kassian, their 13th overall pick in 2009 was traded for a center earlier this week--Cody Hodgson.

This edition of the Sabres is on a pace to score the least amount of goals since the 2002/03 season. In 2003 the team finished with the fifth worst record in the league and picked Thomas Vanek with the #5-overall pick.

So, I blame Ryan Miller because he's kept the Sabres from bottoming out and getting upper-level draft talent for at least two years.

And it looks as if he's doing it again.

Carrying on with that theme, after watching Hodgson last night, I could see two things--Vancouver has some real good forward depth from the skill side to be able to trade away a talent like him and Hodgson already looks to be better than almost anyone on the team up-front.

His skating is pretty smooth, he has great on-ice vision, his transition game is quick, he backs off the defenders and he always seems to be in the right position. His line was clearly the best line on the ice last night, and although he didn't register a point, he was on the break as linemates Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford combined on the latter's goal.

I don't know if it's Hodgson's overall talent or the Sabres lack of upper-eschelon talent up-front, maybe it's a combination of the two, but the Sabres brass really need to upgrade the talent up-front in the off-season. Hodgson was a good start (potential great start,) but it looks as if he's already leaving a couple of "top-six" guys in the dust.

Which brings us to a "top-six" guy on the Sabre who's been MIA for a big chunk of the 2012 calendar year--Thomas Vanek.

Vanek's in a slump, which isn't all that peculiar.

But his four goals in 23 games since the beginning of the calendar year should at least be of note. As should his upper body injury that kept him out of three games. Since his return from injury, though, he's managed three goals, three assists and is a plus-2 in 11 games.

Vanek and linemate Jason Pominville were the only contributors to the Sabres offense during the first half of the season. Pominville has continued his steady, productive pace while Vanek has dropped off.

Lindy Ruff has had Derek Roy centering those two for quite a few games now and they still don't seem to click. When you put Hodgson's line up against Roy's line, the latter looks like it has checking line talent.

On WGR's The Howard Simon Show 10 days ago, Ruff had some interesting thoughts on the two. Ruff called his relationship with Roy, "almost like a father/son relationship where you're tough on your kid" (11:50-mark.) Ruff was almost playful in his response.

But when it came to Vanek, Ruff became terse. Because of Vanek's penchant for dumb penalties in the offensive zone this year, Simon asked Ruff how much rope will the talented goal-scorer get. Ruff responded cut and dry, "No more rope anymore."

"I've probably given out too much rope in that situation during the year," Ruff continued, "and there's been too many conversations about the type of penalties he's taken."

As he delves into his response a little further, Ruff ties in Vanek's penalties as costly in important games throughout the year, especially the games he pointed out earlier where the Sabres could've come away with points most notably Carolina early in the year and St. Louis in January.

Ruff basically throws Vanek under the bus, indirectly blaming him for a handful of losses and then continues his theme, "I've told him there's no more rope. If you want to take those penalties, whether we think there was a penalty or not, I don't want him taking any more."

Vanek is not innocent, by any stretch of the imagination, but who'd have thought that Roy would be Ruff's boy, and Vanek, the team's leading goal scorer for five years running, would be Ruff's whipping boy?


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