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Unmasked: Miller adjusts with Canucks, coach

by Kevin Woodley

Unmasked is a weekly column by Kevin Woodley exploring the personalities, the trends and the analytics which define NHL goaltending.

VANCOUVER -- On the eve of the first season of his NHL career somewhere other than Buffalo, Ryan Miller, the new No. 1 with the Vancouver Canucks, was bluntly asked if he still sees himself as capable of being one of the best goaltenders in the world.

"I think I've got game to play," Miller said.

Miller's game, though, is not quite the same one most other NHL goalies are playing these days.

For all the focus on whether Miller can play to the level which earned him the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goalie in 2010, or live up to the three-year, $18 million contract he signed with the Canucks this summer, the bigger question in Vancouver was how his more aggressive, sometimes old-school, puck-stopping style would fit with the conservative preferences of Roland Melanson, goaltending coach for the Canucks.

Most of the outside attention has focused on where Miller is positioned in his crease, but the ongoing give-and-take sessions with Melanson will focus more on how Miller moves into and around his crease, especially when he is facing chances off the rush.

Ryan Miller is tinkering with his game to find optimal
results with the Canucks.
  (Click for full-size image)

"That's going to be the ballet between us," Miller told "He is going to show me things I could improve on, maybe footwork I can do more efficiently, and that's absolutely his job. My job is to interpret all that, but my personality needs to come out in my goaltending too. I'm going to hold on tightly to that."

Fortunately for the Canucks, the style gap is not as wide as first feared.

Miller said he adopted a deeper positional philosophy before arriving in Vancouver. It's not quite the goal-line-out approach of Henrik Lundqvist, which is emulated by Eddie Lack, Miller's backup in Vancouver. It's also not as extreme as the less-is-more philosophy embraced by Steve Mason of the Philadelphia Flyers and Mike Smith of the Arizona Coyotes. But watch Miller move around as play circulates in his end and, for the most part, the goaltender remains conservatively positioned, challenging beyond the blue paint less than his reputation might suggest.

"I do start in the crease a lot more than I think people give me credit for," Miller said. "I have been a pretty aggressive skating goaltender, but over the years I think it has quieted down. I am just trying to change with the times and build a game that is going to work for the current NHL, so I know that I have to be available to make some saves in back-side situations. I understand that."

An ability to get across the ice on back-door chances, rebounds and loose pucks is only one part of the trend toward deeper positioning that is creeping into the NHL. The other benefits include shorter, therefore quicker, movements from one save position to the next, reducing the holes goalies open as they move laterally.

It has become a game of efficiency and percentages. Miller believes to be at his best, there needs to be more.

It's becoming a bit of a lost art, but Miller wants to dictate to opposing shooters, maybe even bait them a bit. He prefers to play with some personality.

"I don't think I am the kind of guy who can sit back. I still need to be myself," the 34-year-old said. "When I am flowing with the game and making guys change their mind on a play rather than waiting on it, I feel like I am at a high point of my game."

Ryan Miller
Goalie - VAN
RECORD: 2-0-0
GAA: 2.88 | SVP: .889
Miller's flow is evident against the rush. He drifts back from above the crease with the attack. The retreat is fraught with issues for many goalies because it requires shifting of weight from one skate to the other. No matter how subtle the strides are, adding to the number of them increases the risk of getting caught on the wrong skate.

For example, if a pass slides to the goalie's right with the goalie's weight already on the right skate, a shift to the left skate must be executed before pushing across the ice to the new position of the puck. Add in extra distance to cover from aggressive positioning and delays can pile up.

Miller tries to counteract those vulnerabilities with his above-average timing, rhythm and reading of the play. His exceptional skating skills also eliminate some of the wrong-foot issues which plague others. Miller is good at establishing backward momentum early and gliding back balanced on both skates, which he feels gives him the ability to react in either direction while moving laterally.

But he starts a lot of those lateral pushes with his lead skate in a long, gliding reverse C-cut, essentially backing up across the ice instead of rotating, T-pushing across and squaring up into the new save position. And there is a tendency to get caught flat along the goal line and slightly off angle against attacks down the wing, which can open holes.

It's not like Miller is alone in these flow patterns. Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins moves similarly, backing himself across the crease and into last season's Vezina Trophy. A lot of the movement quirks disappear with deeper positioning and the inside-out movements which go with it. Melanson's challenge is to find those efficiencies without losing the feel upon which Miller bases his game.

"That's where I want to be, but I also want to steer the play a little, influence the play a little bit," Miller said. "When I find that point, I feel like there is a balance."

Miller ramped up the aggressiveness at the start of last season, and the results were a strong start, including a .923 save percentage with the Buffalo Sabres and a berth on the U.S. team at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. 

His numbers, though, dropped noticeably following a trade to the St. Louis Blues before the NHL Trade Deadline.

So far in Vancouver the focus has been solely on getting Miller comfortable with his old game in a new system, helping him find the situations where he can take more ice. Don't expect Melanson, who wisely realizes he can't dictate his preferences to a veteran like Miller, to do too much tinkering early. Know this though: The goalie is receptive to making some adjustments as he gets comfortable.

"I do feel I have a bit to learn and little things to clean up," Miller said. "It's handy to have all the tools in the toolbox and Rollie is going to help me with that."

Just don't expect Miller to use them the same way everyone else does.

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