My wife doesn't know a damned thing about sports. It's among the many reasons I love her. As someone who grew up knowing more about the mechanics of most sports as soon or sooner than I could walk, this seems contradictory. It's not, though. For me it was a healthy escape to have a place in my life where I could be away from sports -- where no matter what the conversation was going to be, I knew it wasn't going to be that. But it was also fun because I could get her to believe virtually anything about sports without question. I could make up the most silly nonsense in world history, and she'd just go right along.
On one day when we were first dating, I decided I would tell her a harmless little white lie about Ryan Miller to see if she would believe it.
"Did you know that Ryan Miller has a twitch mechanism faster than that of a Cobra?" I asked. "It's been proven on Sports Science."
A short while later, when we'd make our first trip to Buffalo together, she would come armed with the knowledge of who Ryan Miller was and that he had a twitch mechanism faster than a Cobra. It was great. The fact was random enough that anyone we met in person who did not have immediate access to the internet would not likely challenge it, either out of politeness or ignorance. Besides that, it would also endear her to everyone in Buffalo -- everyone, that is, who loves hockey and sports -- because she appeared to know something about Ryan Miller and appeared to care even though she really did not.
"Really? That's cool." She said, and immediately Ryan Miller became her favorite player (and the only one whose name she could remember) because she now had a "fact" she could recite to people we met. Her previous favorite players were just "that one guy who looks cute" (Jason Pominville) and "that one cute one that kind of looks like he's 11" (Derek Roy). But now she was a bonafide.
The litmus test was at her first professional football game, which was the miserable 6-3 Buffalo Bills loss to the Cleveland Browns in which she continuously asked me, "don't they score touchdowns?".
It's also where she created for herself an incorrect description of a "first down": the first one to fall down on the field.
"There's a first down!" she'd point.
"No, sweetheart, Langston Walker just fell over again."
It was during this game, while sitting next to a band of drunken Canadians who had committed the horrible atrocity of crossing international borders to watch the Bills play the Browns, of all things, that these Canadians began to sniff that she wasn't a sports fan.
"Fumble!" she'd yell and point at Chris Kelsay.
"He's on the sidelines dear. But it's sweet that you keep track of the words I holler at the apartment."
After some drunken berating from the Canadians about not being a Bills fan and just being there for me, she went through a half-hour stretch in which they only referred to her as "Kitty Cat" and got a section wide chant going. Then, they switched sports.
"I bet you don't even know anything about the Sabres either," one of them said.
"I do." she said.
"Oh yeah? Then who is your favorite player."
The kick is long enough....
"Ryan Miller. Did you know that Ryan Miller's twitch mechanism is faster than that of a Cobra?" she stated.
Silence. A pause. Long enough....
"Damn right!" the drunken Canadian shouted, and then probably urinated on someone's grandmother.
And from that moment on, my wife didn't just consider Ryan Miller her favorite player - she loved him. She'd walk around Buffalo for the next four days reciting this single incorrect statement to as many people as she could -- to people who didn't ask, to people who didn't speak English. To Niagara Falls. Not the people there, just the falls.
"Falls, did you know that Ryan Miller..."
So although she spends most of hockey season in exile from my man cave, watching some nonsense like 1 Girl 5 Gays and knitting or some such thing, every once in a while she will shout up, "How's Miller doing?".
And unfortunately, for the last two seasons, the answer has been "not that great" as much as it has been "just fine".
Allow me for a moment to put on my flame retardant suit and my several layers of commenter proof armor -- let me plan various escape routes from the Die By the Blade complex -- and we will dive into the second part of the Curious Tenure of Ryan Miller: The once really good, now more or less average guy who may or may not be faster than a Cobra.
2010-2011 seemed to start well; met expectations. The Sabres opened with a quiet victory over the Ottawa Senators and Ryan Miller looked steady in net. Everything was as it should be. But, as it goes sometimes within the gravity of a given situation: things fall. The next night in the Sabres home opener, Miller allowed 5 goals to the New York Rangers. Two nights later he allowed 4 to Chicago. Up to the midpoint of the NHL season, things would more-or-less be this way for him: inconsistent.
After consecutive shutouts in early December against Columbus and Ottawa, Miller went on a stretch of allowing 3-or-more goals in 7 of the next 11 games. This is, for the past 164 games or so, the Ryan Miller we've come to know: Inconsistent at times, yes, brilliant at times, yes. He is never so inconsistent as to completely erase our faith in him, never so brilliant as to completely erase the doubt. And though Miller is frequently considered significantly above average in Sabres circles, his performance has been almost exactly average for the past two years.
The NHL average for Goals Against was 2.61 in 2010-2011, Miller held a 2.59 number. The save percentage average in the NHL was .913, for Miller, .916.
In 2011-12, things were about the same. The NHL GAA: 2.54. Miller: 2.55. Save percentage: .914. Miller: .916.
So what does this demonstrate? Does it demonstrate that Miller was significantly better than the average? Average? Slightly better? It is all in the eye of the beholder. While Miller's numbers for the most part have held balance throughout his career -- aside from his Vezina winning outlier -- the NHL has seen a drastic reduction in goal scoring, and a drastic improvement in goalie play. Some of this is due to the reduced focus on calling defensive obstruction penalties. Some of this, too, is due to goaltenders playing better, while Miller has been the same.
These numbers are, of course, fairly basic measures and fairly easily cherry-picked. As it goes with statistical analysis, we can generally deduce whatever we would like based on the set of information we choose to believe. Worse yet, if we're looking for a particular answer, statistics are sure to provide it. If you fail at first, just keep looking.
And while this is the case -- while Miller is no slouch, and is certainly capable of stringing together a several-months-long period of brilliance as he did in the early spring of 2012 -- there exists a bounty of statistical and visual evidence that he has, at best, stagnated at the output of his early career, while the league has caught up with, and, in some ways, surpassed him.
This idea is open to several counter arguments. The primary being that Miller has been a victim of circumstance in the past two seasons. First, in 2010-11, it is alleged that the defense in front of Miller was sub-par. This makes some sense. That Sabres did lose Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder in favor of Jordan Leopold and an underachieving Shaone Morrissonn (Moooriisooon? Mmorrrisonnn? Morson? Merson? Martian? Martian.), after all. And though the latter acquisition struggled, the former thrived. Too, the Sabres defense did not play demonstrably worse in 2010-11 than it had in previous seasons. Its performance was not bad in comparison with some of the other goalies who performed well and, in back-up duty, Jhonas Enroth did not seem to have issue with the team in front of him.
A year later, it was a devastating hit from Milan Lucic early in the season that gave Miller a concussion and possible whiplash as the defense against his poor play. It has been said that the poor stretch of play after his return was the result of his ailing physical condition. But how did Ryan Miller look in the 10 games BEFORE the Lucic hit? He allowed 3-or-more goals in 6 of 10, including a game in which he was chased in the first ten minutes against Philadelphia, and another abysmal outing against Winnipeg in which I believe even I inadvertently scored two goals on him. He lost 5 of his last 6 games before the concussion outright.
What does this all mean, exactly? There seems to be a segment of Sabres nation that believes that the implication we're making here is Miller isn't a very good goalie; shouldn't be the starter. That, however, is not the case. It's just that Miller is, in fact, fallible. Human even. Mortal, perhaps. Miller bleeds, after all and, as he now founds himself awash in some measure of criticism it will be interesting to see if that taste of his own blood fuels him.
By early spring 2011, Miller had regained some of his former swagger and was helping to right the once lost ship that was the Sabres 2010-11 season. Then an injury struck, and the season was left up to a young European named Jhonas Enroth to save. In two important games down the stretch against Carolina and the Rangers, Enroth excelled in net and put the Sabres back in the driver's seat for their playoff hopes. Miller would return in the closing weekend in a clinching game against Philadelphia, where he'd enter late in the contest to help the Sabres close the deal. It was a risk by Miller and Ruff: needing just two points with the lowly Blue Jackets on the schedule to close out the season, if Miller came in and struggled against the high powered Flyers offense, there would be a honest-to-goodness goaltender controversy. But Miller looked strong if rusty, fought off some pucks and watched as Thomas Vanek guided a breakaway backhand in for the playoff-clincher in overtime.
All was right with the world. In the playoffs against the same Philadelphia team, Ryan Miller found his form in two dominant performances, but also struggled in a few games. But with Pegula in place as the owner, there was much confidence that things could only get better. A decade earlier, Dominik Hasek watched as the Sabres traded a young forward named Grosek for the gritty veteran leadership of Doug Gilmour and a slick-wristed sniper named J.P. Dumont -- two pieces acquired to help push the Sabres and their prolific goaltender over the final hump to a Stanley Cup victory. Pegula, Regier, and company set out to provide the same assets for their newer netminder.
They returned with Christian Ehrhoff: One of the most dominant coast-to-coast offensive-defenseman in the world, Robyn Regehr: a thick-bodied heavy hitter known for punishing opposing teams forwards, and Ville Leino: the Game 6 foil against the Sabres in the 2011 playoffs who was coming off the best offensive year of his career.
Then came Lucic and the revitalized spring for Miller and the fading, poor performances in the home stretch.
And so we are now back, essentially, where we began: not really sure what the future holds for the goaltender out of Michigan State.
Can Ryan Miller return to being one of the best goaltenders in the world? Yes. He most definitely can. During his 2012 spring stretch in which he helped collect points in 18 of 19 performances and allowed 3-or-more goals during only a small handful of games in that time, I was reminded of something by a colleague, who noted that: "Ryan Miller is making people forget this team can't score."
Over his career, Miller has had the amazing ability to do that time and again -- to make people forget, that is. That's a gift not a lot of goaltenders have, to do it over and over, to play so well in stretches that it can hide the other shortcomings of a team.
Is Ryan Miller one of the best goaltenders in the world currently? No. He most definitely is not. Unfortunately, Ryan Miller has not done that enough -- not justified the title with wins or performance, nor met the standard of play one might accept as reasonable for a playoff contender. He has been just about average; forced there through some combination of awesome and awful. Miller's outspokenness during times of poor play has done him no benefits, either. His sometimes ornery attitude in the locker room, particularly prodding questions about his fatigue or his feelings on certain organizational decisions have led to some fodder for the local media outlets. Round and round we go, and the road is rocky and tiring.
In the end, the future of Ryan Miller will mean far more to how we judge him as a Sabre than his past. At this point, though, he is beyond the realm of excuse or justification. There are no more reasons. There is no more time. If he fails now, for whatever the reason is, it is a fully owned failure; whole, complete. No matter the body of excuses, it reaches a point where the staleness of the exercise prohibits one from faith in going forward. The Sabres have reached this fork in the road with Ryan Miller, whose 2012-13 season will be the most important he will ever have for the organization and for himself.
Eleven years ago, a hockey team shipped a man named Dominik Hasek off to the Michigan to play there. He was still very good, perhaps great. Some loved him and others were ready for a change. No one was confident about the future. Another goalie was playing in Michigan at the time, wearing Spartan green. Eleven years later, here we are again. More questions. More unknowns.
The end is the beginning. The beginning is the end.
Matthew Stewart is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. Follow him on twitter: @matthew1stewart