Sunday, November 8, 2015

Ryan Miller returns to Buffalo for the first time since he was traded

reprinted with permission from

Let's just get this out of the way right now--I've always been a fan of Ryan Miller. During his 11-year career in Buffalo he was a bona fide No.1 goalie who's stat-line isn't purely indicative of what he brought to the table. Despite his numbers which were solid, but not Dominik Hasek-like spectacular he invariably gave the Sabres a chance to win every night.

For instance, his stat-line doesn't tell you that he faced countless odd-man rushes during Buffalo's "Ferrari" years, nor does it tell you how many countless times "the core" couldn't get it done offensively or defensively during the ensuing five seasons post Daniel Briere/Chris Drury. And there certainly won't be an asterisks for his final 80 games as a Sabre at a time when Buffalo was beginning to blow the whole thing up.

What his stat-line will tell you, however, is that in 11 seasons for Buffalo he had 284-186-57 record with a 2.60 goals against average and a .916 save percentage during the regular season. His 284 career wins is a Sabres record while he also holds the franchise record for most wins in a season with 41 (besting his previous mark of 40 in '06-'07) during his Vezina Trophy-winning 2009-10 season. The 2009-10 season was also a Calder Trophy-winning year for Tyler Myers and it was the best Buffalo finish in three years as they ended up atop the northeast division with a 45-27-10 record.

Miller added to that outstanding NHL season by leading Team USA to a surprising silver medal at the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Despite the team losing to a loaded Team Canada, Miller took home the MVP Trophy as Team USA almost pulled off a stunning upset in the gold-medal game.

Despite what I consider to be a pretty solid Sabres career, I'm also very aware of Miller's shortcomings like letting in some real softies inopportune times and him overthinking too much too often. But the biggest shortcoming may have been that he never seemed to be able to got the job done.

Two premier examples of this occurred on two of the biggest stages in hockey--the aforementioned 2010 gold-medal game and the 2008 Winter Classic. In both instances the games went past regulation and both times it was Sidney Crosby going five-hole on Miller for the game-winner. Both were stabs right in the heart of Buffalo hockey fans and Miller, who was the face of the franchise, was now the face of those losses.

Buffalo fans probably never forgave him for that and in the following years as things deteriorated for GM Darcy Regier's "core," they would let their displeasure be known. They were brutal with the team in general but were particularly hard on Miller and his $6.25m salary. These were the expectations as taken from a fan comment on the internet from March, 2011 with the Sabres about to make the playoffs:  "Again.....Miller is so way overrated by many on here......... You know...For 6.3 million I expect Hasek like performances every night and Vezina trophies every year...i have hasek/Roy expectations for a goalie making over 6 mil a year.. i don't expect him to save them all (i am realistic) but for what he is supposed to be valued as i don't feel he fills his end of the bargain... "

There's the rub between Miller and the Buffalo fan-base--the five-year, $31.5m contract extension he received on July 18, 2008. Miller had lived up to that contract for one only year (his Vezina season) and his teams never made it past the first round of the playoffs the two times they were in it. The fan-base, as well as some in the local media, would always go back to his salary.

As the downward spiral grew longer and deeper with Buffalo fans getting louder and more indignant, Miller remained philosophical about the situation and was almost always there post-game when many other players had scurried. Eventually it would get to him, however, and he would lose it after the NY Rangers squashed the Sabres 2012-13 playoff hopes with an 8-4 victory at the First Niagara Center. Miller surrendered two goals late in the first and a third one on a miscue with just seconds remaining in the period. He and the Sabres left the ice to a loud chorus of boos.

Miller came out in the second period, made his first save and the crowd gave him a rousing Bronx cheer to which Miller replied with a faux, double-fist-pump salute. Post-game he said "If they can dish it out, they can take it."

Andrew Kulyk and Peter Farrell of Art Voice were miffed that a well-paid athlete would be so defiant. The duo wrote of the incident "'They,' of course, being the ticket-buying patrons of the Buffalo Sabres, the people who pay huge dollars so that Miller can pocket $6.25m in salary each season." Kulyk and Farrell would further their point by dredging up Miller's pro-player stance during the 2012-13 NHL-lockout. "During the most recent lockout Miller was one of the shrill hardliners in labor negotiations," they wrote, "repeatedly complaining about the 'disrespect' he and his fellow players have had to endure--6.25 million examples of disrespect in Miller's case."

And they just wouldn't let it go in the piece. They quoted Miller as saying this after the game, "It's been years and years of not getting it done, so if they want change and are pissed off, then fine," then followed it up with a tort reply. "Again. 'They' are presumably the ticket-buying fans which, if one does the simple math, suggests that $7.80 of each ticket sold at the gate goes directly into Ryan Miller's pocket."

I'm pretty sure it's not that simple, but regardless, less than a year later Miller was traded to the St. Louis Blues and in the 2014 off-season former Buffalo head amateur scout Jim Benning, who became GM of Vancouver, signed Miller to a 3yr./$18m contract. He'll make his first visit to Buffalo as a Canuck today for a 1pm matinee.

Miller was gracious in his return to the podium. Yesterday post-practice at the First Niagara Center, he reflected a bit, "I spent a lot of time here and tried to connect as best I could to the community and felt like I was a part of it," he told the gathered media. "That's the great thing about Buffalo. A lot of the guys have been asking me what Buffalo’s all about. The simplest answer is you get to know the city, you get to know the people and that’s really where it’s at. That’s what’s always made it a great place. Once you show people who you are, they accept you. I think they feel you’re always a part of that."

Miller went through some pretty dark times as a member of the Buffalo Sabres stretching all the way back to his first seasons when Regier was tearing down the previous team and building his own while through it all the city itself was worn down and decrepit. He was there for the initial commitment of Pegula to downtown and when he came back for his first visit since being traded, Miller was happy for the city's outlook. “It’s fun to see how things changed," he said. “Maybe staying away a little bit longer is kind of a shock to the system to come down here and see so much has changed. Nice changes here. [HARBORCENTER] is a beautiful facility. It's great for the city with the extra ice rinks and the attraction to be down here. It really makes downtown a destination again."

During the whole 12-minute presser, Miller was never asked about, nor did he mention, his final seasons in Buffalo. He's in the now and had said he'll try to keep it that way when he hits the ice for first time on a visiting team. It would seem as if it took everything that's happened over the course of the last year-and-a-half to get him to this point in his life. "It was a great chapter in my life," he said about his career in Buffalo, "but it definitely kept moving forward for everyone. I have a good life. I'm happy to be married and have a beautiful son, I'm playing with a good organization. We're competitive. I feel good. That's exactly where I want to be in my life."

It's not to say that he's lost his focus on the ice. Right now his 2.14 gaa is the best of his career while his .923 sv percentage matches his best to date (2013-14.) Perhaps what he mentioned yesterday is true, that he considers himself a "late bloomer" and that maybe he'll "get it figured out in his mid-30's."

"I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs," he said. "I’ve seen a lot of different things. Just try not to put too much stock into anything other than I just want to be out there and compete. I want to make saves. Just try to really simplify things, get back to the attitude that got me into the league."

Ryan's son is named Bodhi which when translated from Indian Sanskrit means "awakening" and it looks as if Miller has found what he's been looking for after years of tumult and he's seems to have found a new, even higher, level of maturity since his days in Buffalo.

As for the fans, I'd expect a very warm welcome for Miller once he hits the ice. Or at least there should be. He was a class act in Buffalo and always gave back to the community. He's at a good place in his life and really doesn't have any hard feelings. When asked if he had a message for the fans, Miller said, "Things are good, and I hope everything's good with them. It's exciting times in Buffalo so just enjoy it."

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