Monday, April 22, 2013

Happy hour might be over, Miller-time can't seem to satisfy Sabres' fans needs

On Friday the Buffalo Sabres were officially eliminated from the playoffs.

This would be the second season in a row they will have missed the dance, twice in three years under the ownership of "Uncle" Terry Pegula.

It wasn't all that surprising that they were eliminated as many had felt for weeks that the Sabres really didn't have what it took to make it. But an 8-3 loss on home ice, including a 6-0 deficit, was a brutal way end their playoff hopes.

The supreme focus now, officially, is on the rebuild. GM Darcy Regier has been dismantling his "vaunted" core for nearly two years and only two "Rochester Guys" remain:  goalie Ryan Miller and forward Thomas Vanek.

Miller and Vanek are the two keys as to whether this will be a complete rebuild or a somewhat partial one.

Both play key roles on the team, both are in their prime, both are signed for one more season and both, it would seem, are somewhat ambivalent about re-signing in Buffalo.

They're not getting any younger either--Miller is 32 and Vanek, 29. One would think that Father Time is pulling them towards an established playoff team with a chance to win the Cup, of which the Sabres are not and are unlikely to be in the near future.

And if that wasn't enough to guide them away from re-signing in Buffalo, the fans and media certainly could push them out the door.

With former whipping boys Tim Connolly and Derek Roy gone, Miller is now the face of "the core's" failure and has endured a steady stream of anger directed at the team.

He's heard the boos and felt the jeers sporadically throughout his career in Buffalo but it has never been this bad or has never been felt this often. He had never, up until Friday's game against the Rangers, outwardly reacted to the fans at the game.

On Friday he watched the Rangers first two goals deflect in off a teammates' skate then fumbled the puck in front of his own net for another goal real late in the first period.

His blunder lead to a Bronx Cheer when he played a puck hard off the boards. He responded with a "faux" salute to the crowd.

"If the [fans] can dish it out, they can take it back," Miller said.

Ummmmm. No they can't.

For as much as the team touts Buffalo as a great hockey town, it's a brutal town with a large contingent downtrodden fans suffering from "damsel in distress" syndrome. The damsels in Buffalo are always looking for that savior to lift the team, and themselves, to a championship.

Incoming players and/or management and/or owners like to call the fans of Buffalo "very knowledgeable" of the game. But as "knowledgeable" as these fans are said to be, or think like to think they are, nuances within the game seem to elude them and eventually leads them to boo their team in a tie game while their still in well within reach of a playoff spot.

Just ask Steve Ott, who found the booing "completely ridiculous," and soon incurred the wrath of the ticket-buying public. This isn't Miller complaining (or some would say, whining) about the lack of support from the fans. This is burgeoning cult hero Steve Ott, such a fan favorite for his grit and lunch-bucket mentality, that he was being christened as the next captain of the team even before captain Jason Pominville was traded.

One has to think that most of these "knowledgeable fans" attain their knowledge through stats and the new trend, "analytics." Kind of makes the casual fan believe they are now "experts."

Stats, unfortunately for Miller, are not really his strong suit, nor have they been for his entire career in Buffalo. He had one year when he won the Vezina in 2009/10. It was a great season that featured a strong defense lead by Calder-winning defenseman Tyler Myers.

And, although his playoff stats are comparable to that of the Rangers Henrik Lundqvist, fans will not put him on the same elite level they do with "King Henrik." They look at Miller, who commanded nearly the same salary as Lundqvist, as overrated and extremely overpaid.

The "knowledgeable" fan base rarely saw, or failed to acknowledge, the inordinate amount of odd-man rushes he faced nightly and the poor defense over the years which produced countless "layups" for the opposition.

"They're paying him elite money, he should be making elite saves,"screams the fan base. "The Dominator (Dominik Hasek) would've saved them."

And there's another point.

Miller, unfortunately, has worked under the shadow of Hasek--future Hall-of-Famer and Sabre great--his entire time in Buffalo. Yes, Martin Biron was the first starter to take over, but the legacy of Hasek has still hovered over Miller and this team. After all, he was considered a "savior" and almost single-handedly won the Cup. (Hasek himself got fed up with the Buffalo hockey scene and demanded a trade)

Miller was always compared to Hasek (an unfair comparison) and the scrutiny increased after he signed a contract for $6.25M per season. The simple rule of thumb:  he's paid like an elite goalie, he should play like one.

Yet, Miller did so on many occasions. The argument could easily be made that he single-handedly kept this team in playoff contention over the past six seasons despite a parade of players that featured only one true top-line player--Vanek. He is the sole reason that this team did not end up near the bottom of the league and get a top-3 selection in the draft for the six seasons post Chris Drury/Daniel Briere.

Not good enough, though. Especially for the fan-base. "You don't win over Buffalo fans by losing hockey games and putting up mediocre seasons," he said. "And the last three years have been pretty much that."

I've come to Miller's defense on many occasions. Just click on his link. But this may be one of the last times I write of him as a Buffalo Sabre.

Jerry Sullivan of the Buffalo News penned a good piece concerning Miller and the probable end of the road in Buffalo for him. He started it with this, "Sometimes, you just know. If you’ve seen enough hockey stars reach the end of the line in Buffalo, you can feel it coming."

That last part, "hockey stars reaching the end of the line in Buffalo" is telling in and of itself. Stars like Hasek, Michael Peca,  Briere and dating back to Tom Barrasso, Phil "Wowie" Housley and Dave Andreychuk in the 80's and 90's, are not finishing their careers in Buffalo.

We could be adding Miller's name to that list and you can tell it's on his mind as well. (Probably Vanek too)

When asked about that possibility, Miller brought up Montreal Canadians/Colorado Avalanche great, HOF goalie, Patrick Roy. "Well, I would love to have what happened after that,” he said. “Just saying. It doesn’t mean I want to leave, but if that’s what you’re getting at. [Roy] won two Stanley Cups after that so, hey, why not?”

Sounds as if he's had it with hockey in Buffalo, a place he's often said he wants to stay and win.

He should move on, though. Not because he's statistically inept or a goalie that's not worth the money he makes, but because there's a pall over the F'N Center and the team will need more that just him to shine through it.

The weight of the fan base and their damsel in distress expectations can't be carried by one or two, or even three or four individuals. Especially the types of individual, thin-skinned players, that Regier has loaded his team with over the past decade.

"We haven't done it," Miller said post game. "We haven't lived up to any expectation and it's just been years and years of not getting it done. If [the fans] want change, if their pissed off, that's fine. It's not like we haven't been searching for a way to satisfy our needs that basically satisfy their needs. We just haven't gotten the job done."

Miller, like former head coach Lindy Ruff, has paid his dues in Buffalo.

As much as they wanted to satisfy Buffalo's thirst for a championship, there was just not enough talent and not enough of a supporting cast to pull it off.

It will be up to a "new core" players. And they'll need some pretty thick skin for the rebuilding years.

The team will need to keep thick-skinned players like Ott. They'll need to acquire thick-skinned, crusty players like the departed Robyn Regehr. And they'll need to find a goalie with thick skin as well.

If I were him, I'd have flipped off the fan-base and demanded a trade years ago.

Buffalo just can't seem to appreciate quality.

Just ask Hasek and Peca, Barrasso, Andreychuk and Housley.

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