After spending his entire professional career in the Buffalo organization, Ryan Miller was shipped off to St. Louis at the trade deadline last season. The Blues were hoping that the 2001 Hobey Baker winner would be the missing piece to their Stanley Cup puzzle. However, Miller and the Blues were bounced in their first round match-up with the Chicago Blackhawks. It was quite a change for Miller coming from the Sabres, where he played behind a young and inexperienced group of players, to St. Louis, arguably the stingiest defensive team in hockey. It isn’t easy for a goaltender who is accustomed to facing 30-plus shots per night to adjust to the 15 or 20 that the Blues were allowing.
The Canucks made Miller their free agent priority very early on in the process. General Manager Jim Benning and Miller have a level of familiarity that is very rare between GMs and goaltenders. Benning was at one time a top scout with the Buffalo Sabres, and he grew quite fond of Miller, a standout for the Michigan State Spartans. On Benning’s recommendation, the Sabres ended up selecting Miller 138th overall at the 1999 NHL Draft. Miller went on to set franchise records for the Sabres in both wins (284) and wins in a season (41).
Miller’s record setting numbers are even more impressive when you consider the fact that the Buffalo crease was once patrolled by a man they called the Dominator. One significant reason why the Canucks were and are so fond of Benning is his ability to evaluate young talent – just as he did over 15 years ago with Miller.
For a team looking to change its identity and start fresh this season, Benning believes that Miller will add a lot to that dynamic.
“He looks calm right now and stuff, but when he puts on the gear, he’s a fierce competitor. He’s intense. And he wants to win. That’s the type of player we want in the organization going forward.”
While most every professional hockey player is a fierce competitor, wherever he has gone Miller has been known as a very driven and motivated person. The Canucks are hoping that these traits rub off on some of Miller’s young teammates in the Vancouver dressing room.
The Road to Stardom
Deciding to attend Michigan State was an easy choice for Miller. His grandfather, great uncle, dad, cousin, and later his brother Drew all played hockey there. In total, 10 members of the Miller family have been Spartans (which leaves them about 290 family members short of a 300 remake, unfortunately). He had a phenomenal three-year career at Michigan State, winning the Hobey Baker as the country’s top player in 2001. He set an NCAA record with 26 shutouts over his career, and during his Hobey Baker season he led the country in wins, save percentage (.950, also an NCAA record), goals-against average, and shutouts (10 – another NCAA record). Miller was (and still is) one of the most dominant goaltenders in the history of college hockey.
Miller quickly worked his way up through the AHL with the Rochester Americans after turning pro. He won the Aldege Bastien Memorial Award as the league’s top goaltender in 2004-05 (a particularly impressive feat as the AHL was stacked with talent that season thanks to the NHL lockout). It didn’t take long for Miller to solidify himself as Buffalo’s starting goaltender only a year later – a position he held for many years to follow.
Miller’s 2009-10 season was one for the ages. He led an underdog American squad to a silver medal at the Olympics in Vancouver. He captured the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender, finishing the season with a 2.22 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage. He was almost unbeatable every single night, and every Sabres fan couldn’t wait for the clock to strike ‘Miller Time.’ Miller also earned another nickname that season: ‘Leaf Killer: Ryan Miller.’ During his time with the Sabres, Miller won 31 games against Toronto (his highest total against any one NHL club).
Miller has struggled to match the heights he reached in 2010 over the past few seasons, but a lot of that has to do with Buffalo going through significant organizational changes on the ice, behind the bench, and within the front office.
Something to Prove
Miller gives the Canucks a legitimate starting goaltender for the next three years. Eddie Lack was great last season playing through a very difficult situation, and Willie Desjardins now has two goaltenders that he can have confidence in putting in goal each night. Even if the Canucks are focused on retooling, it is important to have young players develop in a winning environment. With the likes of Bo Horvat, Hunter Shinkaruk, Frank Corrado, and Jake Virtanen (just to name a few) coming through the pipeline over the next few years, the Canucks front office deemed it imperative to have stability between the pipes.
Club President Trevor Linden emphasized the importance of having a proven goaltender in between the pipes in a recent interview.
“We can’t have Daniel and Henrik, Alex Burrows and Chris Higgins, all these veterans, and not give them every chance they need to win. As much as we felt [Eddie Lack] made great steps last year, Jim believes goaltending is the most important position in the game. He needed to know every night we had a chance to win and we’re going to be good in that position. That’s the foundation of your team. Nothing destroys confidence faster if you struggle at that position.”
Ryan Miller has been the foundation of many teams. Michigan State, Rochester, Buffalo, and the United States. The Canucks are expecting that he is ready to add another team to that list.