Thursday, December 5, 2013

The great debate, Miller/Lundqvist and the merits of a well-paid, upper-echelon goalie

You can judge any player in any number of ways, stats and awards being just two of them. Or does said player have their name engraved on the Stanley Cup.

The big ta-do these days is Henrik Lundqvist's 7yr./$59.5m contract extension the Rangers just gave him. It's a very hefty $8.5m/season cap-hit for a goaltender. Of course one must keep in mind that it's the Rangers. They're in The Big Apple and have always had the benefit of television rights that allow them to spend as much as they want, whenever they want.

Over the course of the last six or seven years, there's been a debate over the merits of having a well-paid, upper-echelon goalie and how that affects a team's quest for the Cup. Are they even necessary? Would large chunks of salary-cap space be better spent on skaters? Is the goalie more important than the defense and/or the coach's system and/or a team's ability to score?

All this comes into play with the Sabres goalie Ryan Miller.

Miller is, and always has been a comparable goalie to Lundqvist. To the point where his last contract paid him a shade under what Lundqvist signed for.

Miller is an unrestricted free agent at season's end and the debate about his merits on the team had subsided. The entire hockey world had figured that his time in Buffalo had come to an end, especially with the team in full-fledged rebuild-mode and Miller entering his mid-30's.

The general consensus is that he did his time in Buffalo and that he'll finish his career on a Cup-contender and that the Sabres will move him by this season's trade deadline to make sure the get themselves a return.

Surely Sabres fans were writing their eulogy, no doubt espousing Miller's positives while invariably throwing in a "Mr. Softee" moment as a shot at a generally under appreciated netminder.

But a funny thing happened on the way to his funeral dirge, Buffalo's interim coach Ted Nolan said that he wants Miller on the team.

Nolan, who had future Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek in net for him with the Sabres before, has been touting the virtues of Miller ever since he became interim bench boss.

Yesterday, in light of the Lundqvist signing, Nolan had this to say, "You build around him versus as a pawn to try to get something to make you better,” he said after practice yesterday. “You learn to deal with the now as a coach, and we got one of the better goaltenders in the world here. I’d like to build around him, myself.”

Fair enough. Miller has proven to be a bonafide #1 goalie and not every team has one. He's also proved that he can be elite. He has a Vezina Trophy, just like Lundqvist does.

You can take all the stats you want. You can throw in awards. And you can even debate defenses and coaching systems and how they affected a goalies performance. You can add in the forwards, whether they back check, whether or not they can score, whether or not they are clutch, etc, etc, etc.

You can go on and on forever debating all of that.

But what it really comes down to with goalies is how much they can get into the heads of the opposition.

For my money, there are only a couple of players in the Eastern Conference who don't tighten their grip when facing Miller.

And only one has been in the east since the 2004 lockout--Sidney Crosby.

Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk is another that isn't intimidated by Miller.

You could throw in his teammate, former Ottawa Senator Daniel Alfredsson, in the mix as well. The Senators as a team managed to consistently beat the Sabres and their team play got in the heads of Buffalo allowing for gifts left and right.

But only Crosby has shown the natural ability and skates with the chutzpah to pick apart Miller.

When a goalie can intimidate nearly everyone in their conference into thinking they need to make a perfect shot, they stifle the opposition. That's the merit of having an upper-echelon goalie.

It's not to say a good scheme by the opposition or poor play by the team in front can doom even a great goalie, but for the most part they'll be in every game with an opportunity to win.

That's what Lundqvist brings, and that's why he's getting paid.

That's what Miller brings as well, and someone will pay him.

Will it be the Sabres?

It may not be up to them, but if they wanted to and did throw a big chunk of change at him, I wouldn't throw myself from a bridge in angst.

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