When news broke this morning that the St. Louis Blues had re-signed impending unrestricted free agent netminder Brian Elliot, 29, to a new three-year deal, it became obvious Ryan Miller is no longer in the Blues’ plans after being acquired from the Buffalo Sabres.
Though St. Louis was one of the league’s most dominant teams throughout most of the season, the Notes clearly weren’t comfortable with Jaroslav Halak between the pipes. In the meantime, Buffalo was said to be close on a deal that would send Miller to the Minnesota Wild or even the Washington Capitals. In the end, Miller was dealt along with grinder Steve Ott to the Blues in return for Halak, gritty power forward Chris Stewart, top prospect William Carrier and two draft picks. Miller–who had been playing admirably on an atrocious Sabres squad with an amazing .923 save percentage–ran into a meat grinder in the ultra competitive Western Conference, putting together a 10-8-1 record, a .903 save percentage and a 2.47 goals against average in 19 games. His struggles continued in St. Louis’ first round series with the Chicago Blackhawks, in which Miller notched a 2-4-0 record, a .897 save percentage and a 2.70 goals against average.
The Blues finished the season struggling to come up with answers as to why they couldn’t pull the season together after pouring so many assets into acquiring a franchise netminder with such game-changing potential. With Miller turning 34 in July, and the future franchise starter, Jake Allen, ready for fulltime NHL duty, St. Louis has clearly decided to take what’s left of its dignity and move on. As such, Miller will hit free agency as the biggest name available in the blue paint.
There are many reasons why he could find himself with a massive pay day this offseason. In 559 career NHL games, Miller has compiled an impressive 294-194-1-59 record, a .915 save percentage, a 2.59 goals against average and 29 shutouts over the course of 11 seasons (not including the 2004-05 season lost during the lockout). In addition, he’s been solid in the playoffs outside of this season, putting together a career postseason record of 27-26, a .915 save percentage, a 2.49 goals against average and three shutouts. Finally, he was the goaltender to backstop Team USA to the Silver medal in Vancouver in 2010, a tournament in which he was also named an All-Star, Best Goaltender and Tournament MVP.
That said, his brief time spent with the Blues may have hurt his stock in a very big way. On a team known more for its stellar defense and rock solid goaltending, Halak had actually been very sturdy in net, going 24-9-4 with a .917 save percentage, a 2.23 goals against average and four shutouts in 40 games prior to being shipped to Buffalo. Whether it was getting adjusted to a new city or Ken Hitchcock’s system of coaching, Miller couldn’t find a rhythm in St. Louis, even allowing 30 goals in 10 games during the Blues’ late season stumble. In hindsight, it’s easy to see the Sabres won this trade hands down.
Miller now finds himself looking for a fresh start, and his next contract could be at risk of taking a serious cut. The 1999 fifth round pick is coming off a five-year deal worth an annual cap hit of $6.25 Million. Earlier this year, it was thought he could command even more this offseason. After an embarrassing performance against the Blackhawks, Miller will be lucky to receive a two or three-year deal with an annual cap hit of half to two-thirds of what he makes per year on his current contract. If that is indeed the case, he could finally be had at an affordable price for the Wild, a team that constantly seems to be struggling for security in goal.
There are a lot of moving parts if Minnesota is to sign Miller. Former franchise No. 1 netminder Niklas Backstrom will need to be traded (when healthy, that is), Josh Harding’s situation needs to be ironed out and Darcy Kuemper–the Wild’s goalie of the future–needs to be re-signed, and he’ll likely command a one-way ticket. As stated in previous articles this week, Minnesota has a little over $22 Million in cap space to re-sign key restricted free agents, any impending unrestricted free agents they wish to retain and then perhaps address goal scoring, defense and goaltending.
The important thing is to make sure the club has the money to spend on locking up the youngsters it has worked so hard to attain these past several years. However, if Wild GM Chuck Fletcher can find a way to do that and acquire Miller’s services at an affordable price, he should jump on it. It’s one thing to jump into a new system head first late in the season; it’s another to have the time to wade in with a full training camp and preseason schedule. That may be all the difference between the Miller of this spring, and the dominating wall of fortitude he’s been known to be in the past. If Fletcher feels comfortable risking it, the potential is there for it to pay off big time.