Ryan Miller rest on his knees, his head sunken into his shoulders. Exhausted men in autumn red and white and black celebrated just a few feet in front of him. It was the best Ryan Miller had ever been -- indeed, he was the best goaltender at that time in the entire world -- and an underdog Team USA rode his strong play to the Gold Medal Game of the 2010 Olympics.
This was the Ryan Miller we knew, the one with whom we finally fell in love and on which we cast our Stanley Cup hopes. He was the one who fought back tears as he accepted his Silver Medal; the Ryan Miller who seemed to finally be coming into his own as one of the permanent, elite goaltenders in the game. But it hasn't always been that way, and as we now creep closer to ten seasons in which Miller has played at least one NHL game for the Buffalo Sabres, questions abound as to what is next for the Sabres netminder.
A Long Foreground Somewhere
"I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying and encouraging…" - Walt Whitman
Ryan Miller sniffled, kept himself from crying. He wiped his brow, rubbed his eyes with his index finger and thumb. His face was red and tired. It was not so much the reaction of an exhausted young man, but an exasperated one. One without answers.
It was a cool December night in 2003 and, after having spent two months working on his game in Rochester, Miller turned in his second consecutive dud performance with the Buffalo Sabres. The first had come in October in which he'd allowed 6 goals on 24 shots to the Islanders. The second -- the one that set doubt in Miller's mind that he was ever going to make it -- was a 7-2 drubbing at the hands of the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings. He made only 16 saves on the night. He told reporters, in so many words, he didn't know if he'd ever make it back.
No one seemed to disagree.
It was an unusual feeling for a kid of Miller's pedigree. A well-regarded, well-rounded, often-viewed-as-intelligent net minder who spent his formative years honing his craft at Michigan State, Ryan Miller was looked upon and felt like he was put together out of spare Ken Dryden parts at some goalie factory. Still, everything wasn't set in stone. Miller had competition in both Martin Biron and Mika Noronen; two goaltenders who were considered to have high ceilings in their own right.
When Ryan Miller finally earned the full-time starting job in the early goings of 2005-06, it hadn't quite yet seemed like he'd fully regained his confidence as an NHL goaltender, but he was getting there. It was always meant to be that way, it felt: Miller in net, a solid team in front of him.
Moreover: Miller had the benefit in those first few full seasons after the lockout of a team that scored goals for him, and so many of his mistakes went unnoticed.
"They kind of just leave him back there." Ted Nolan said in an 2007 interview, after the Sabres had defeated his New York Islanders in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
And that they did. The Sabres healthy transition game and powerful offensive presence allowed them to put Ryan Miller on an island where he was free to learn how to be an NHL Goaltender and free to screw up once in a while without it turning into a blowout. It took a while, but he'd finally got back his swagger, and everyone was on board. He was smart, well spoken, in most ways (at the time) uncontroversial and, best of all, American. There were product endorsements, and while the Sabres plowed through captain after captain in the year following the 2007 July dismemberment, a great portion of the Sabres community recognized Miller as one of the team's most vital leaders.
As the Sabres entered 2008-09, the second season after losing Drury and Briere, Ryan Miller was the indisputable face of the franchise. So went Miller, so went the organization.
Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman once had an interesting anecdote about how Gene "Stick" Michael would handle scouts who didn't like how a player who put up good numbers looked. "If you don't like what you see, turn around." he'd say.
The idea was simple: that regardless of how a player looked when they played, the outcome was all that mattered. Putting up numbers and putting up wins. This is essentially the life story of Dominik Hasek.
A quirky, double-jointed Czech goaltender who often resembled a sea otter more than he did a human being when playing goal, Dominik Hasek had a similar meteoric rise within the Sabres organization as Ryan Miller. And few saw it coming, exactly because he didn't look like a goalie who was going to amount to much. He did it all with less offensive help and far less pedigree, but the general details are roughly the same. After taking the job from Grant Fuhr, Hasek became the face of the franchise and one of the most beloved figures in Sabres history -- for a time.
It wasn't always a walk in the park. Hasek made plenty of mistakes; let in soft goals. At times it seemed as though he'd have a brief but egregious mental lapse that made no sense whatsoever. He'd occasionally go for a stroll around the neighborhood -- you know -- somewhere in the general vicinity of his net, but not exactly in it, and the outcome could sometimes be disastrous. But we forgave him because the Sabres were becoming a whole lot of fun to watch and because he was making the type of prolific saves that seemed to defy physics. He also was putting up stats that greatly overshadowed his shortcomings. Hasek was in 93-94 so good, so fast, that it never occurred to us that he might not be that good always. But in 95-96 his GAA ballooned to almost 3, he played 59 games but won only 22, and people panicked a little.
In other words, Hasek, like Miller, had his own maturation process -- albeit in a different way -- but he was good enough that we believed in him, and so we forgave his mistakes.
Ryan Miller, in his first three years as the Sabres starter, was not one of the best goaltenders in hockey. He was above average, sure, but he had some shortcomings. Some of them were glaring.
Nevertheless, as Miller and the Sabres entered 2008-09, he was the defacto go-to guy on the team. It had nothing and everything to do with what the Sabres fan based learned from their time with Hasek. Miller wasn't as good as Hasek; hadn't earned the spotlight by making prolific saves himself and then becoming, suddenly, unbeatable. But what he *had* done for Buffalo was helped accomplish things that Sabres fans had never seen before, just like Hasek. He'd helped the team win a President's Trophy, helped them capture the team high in single-season wins, helped them to two Eastern Conference Finals and then was perhaps the most competent looking player in the disastrous 2007-2008 campaign while the forwards tried to find their identity.
Like Hasek, we ended up there kind of out of necessity. Because he was pretty good pretty fast, with the potential to be really good and there wasn't exactly a lot else to look forward to. It was the most sure way to enjoy the hockey, and to having hope about the next season. Mogilny wasn't walking through that door. Briere wasn't walking through that door.
So what did Miller give us in 2008-09 and 2009-10? The two best seasons of his career. An injury shortened campaign in 2008-09 left doubts about the team, but not about Miller. The excuse of the year was unanimous: had Miller been healthy during the stretch run, the team would have made it in. A year later, they not only made it in, they finished 3rd in the conference.
It was the year that Ryan Miller accepted his Vezina trophy and the year that he finished a Silver Medalist in the Winter Olympics. Ryan Miller had blossomed from potential to results, and everything seemed to have come full circle.
At that point, the question was no longer whether or not Ryan Miller was this team's franchise goaltender, but whether or not the Sabres would put the team around him he needed to win a cup.
Little did he know, little did we know, that the most tumultuous, controversial years of Miller's tenure were right ahead.
Next Week: Part Two, The Curious Tenure of Ryan Miller
Matthew Stewart is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. You can reach him on Twitter: @matthew1stewart