Ryan Miller Headlines Free Agent Goalie Signings
It didn’t take long for goaltenders to start signing with new teams when free agency opened on July 1, and to the surprise of few the biggest names on the open market quickly filled the few possible No.1 vacancies when Ryan Miller signed with the Vancouver Canucks and Jonas Hiller inked shortly after with the Calgary Flames.
Similarly, there was an early run on quality backups, which should also come as no surprise given that’s where most of the goaltending job openings were in the NHL this summer. But while many in the media continued to fixate on the League’s all-time wins leader, Martin Brodeur, teams with needs instead targeted names like Chad Johnson, Justin Peters, Al Montoya and other goaltenders better suited to the job description.
Add in depth signings and two-way contracts later in the day, and by the time the sun set on the July 1 free agent frenzy, 16 goaltenders had signed with new teams.
InGoal Magazine will take a closer look at where everyone ended up, and why it does (or might not) fit, starting with a more in-depth look at the situation we know best because it is closest to the home offices and the team we cover daily:
Ryan Miller, Vancouver Canucks
Three years, $18-million
Rumblings about this signing being inevitable have been making the rounds among NHL goalies coaches for more than a month based on Miller’s history with new Canucks general manager Jim Benning, who was with the Sabres when they picked the goalie in the fifth round of the 1999 NHL Draft.
Benning admitted his familiarity with Miller played a big role in the signing, but even with Miller providing experience for a young Canucks crease with only Eddie Lack and Jacob Markstrom signed, it left some wondering how well the new GM knows his new team and the market they play in. Forget the irony of Vancouver having Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo as its tandem just one year earlier, or the problems having a veteran on a big contract created when younger goalies like Schneider and then Lack pushed for playing time, there are very real questions about whether Miller is a fit with the goaltending coach who developed those two into NHL starters.
Roland Melanson has alway been firm in his belief goaltenders need to play a contained, inside-out game, with “blue ice in front of their toes” at all times, but Miller admittedly prefers to skate more, playing with backwards flow and relying a little more on rhythm, timing and an exceptional ability to read the game. Miller also plays with an active stick and doesn’t apologize for it, even after it cost him in big moments like the gold-medal clinching goal against Canada at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic, or while posting a .897 save percentage during the Blues first round playoff exit against the Chicago Blackhawks. Melanson once taped a knob over the handle of Lack’s stick to prevent him from pokechecking too much in practice – and Lack is hardly a goalie anyone would label “aggressive” with his stick.
So you can see why some might wonder about the fit, especially since Miller told some in St. Louis he was thrown off a bit by talk of needing to play a bit deeper in his crease because the Blues’ collapsing, shot-blocking style would leave him stranded atop his crease.
“I am always open to being coached,” Miller said during a press conference to announce his signing. “I am a little more stubborn in that you are going to have to really explain to me why it will work for me. I am going to push back. If they are a good teacher they are going to push me hard and push back and explain why it’s going to work and we are going to have a great relationship.”
Benning said Melanson was consulted and signed off on the signing, but like many of the half-dozen NHL goalie coaches consulted by InGoal about Miller’s game, he may see a goaltender that has gotten a little sloppy in his movements and should benefit from some technical tinkering and tightening. But there’s a big difference between updating post-integration tactics and changing how he moves around the crease and some goaltenders, including Carey Price in Montreal, just feel better about their game when it’s got a little flow to it.
As Miller indicated, it will be up to Melanson to sell him on changes, rather than dictate them. He did it with Luongo, Schneider and Lack, so there’s no reason it can’t also work with a 34-year-old Miller, no matter how stubborn he says he can be.
As for the other concerns about Vancouver signing Miller, the biggest one is term.
Miller’s $6-million salary ranks 14th among NHL goaltenders for next season, and even though his matching salary cap hit is a bit out of whack as the seventh highest in the League, the Canucks have plenty of room after trading away Ryan Kesler and Jason Garrison at the NHL Draft over the previous weekend. While many will point to Miller’s declining save percentage since winning the Vezina Trophy in 2010 – he posted a .929 that season but has been at .916 in the four seasons since – he has always remained above the NHL average.
You can argue what that’s really worth in a salary cap era, but for a position with as much volatility, Miller’s consistency has value.
Eyebrows were raised when Miller’s numbers dipped drastically from an impressive .923 save percentage with the Sabres to start this season to a .903 with the Blues after March 1, and .897 in the playoffs. Some coaches wonder if Miller had become a good bad team goalie in Buffalo, where low expectations made it easier to overlook questionable goals and high shot totals can actually inflate save percentage.
That’s probably not fair to Miller, who as Benning pointed out can be as intense and competitive as they come. Even without looking deeper into the types of shots he faced with the struggling Sabres, it’s probably fair to assume there was a higher volume of quality shots. But it’s also possible his more flowing, aggressive style and ability to read plays was well suited to the types of rush chances the Sabres surrendered, while his positioning atop the crease was less of a fit in St. Louis, where the ability to play off feel is tougher because fewer shots get to the net.
It’s hard to answer questions about how Miller’s style – or even Melanson’s preferences – fits in Vancouver because the Canucks have a new coach in Willie Desjardins and questions remain about how they’ll play, a process Miller talked about figuring out together.
The bigger concern is the three-year length of the contract and a limited no-trade clause that is reportedly limited to five teams of his choosing. Given Miller practically admitted there were no other teams seriously in the running for his services, a two-year deal like Jonas Hiller signed may have been preferable given the career path to date of Lack. Then again Benning was already talking about possibly re-signing Miller three years from now if things go well, which says a lot about his mindset.
Benning, who selected top-ranked goalie Thatcher Demko with the 36th pick in the Draft four days earlier, also talked about a progression in the crease, pointing to Tuukka Rask taking over for Tim Thomas during his time as an assistant GM in Boston, and added, “Goalies develop later than the rest of the players. I don’t think you really know what you have with a goalie until they are 26, 27 years old.”
Lack is already 26, however, and only under contract for two more seasons before becoming a free agent. The easy going Swedish stopper said all the right things when InGoal reached him on a vacation in Spain, but clearly the length of Miller’s deal has to be a concern.
The reality is Lack will benefit from less playing time this season. He was cruising along with a .925 save percentage when the Canucks gave him the controversial start at the Heritage Classic, effectively ending Luongo’s time in Vancouver. But with Luongo gone and head coach John Tortorella refusing to start Markstrom until the Canucks were mathematically eliminated, Lack struggled at times while starting 19 straight games. His save percentage slipped to .912 and the lack of time with Melanson between starts began to show. None of which should be a surprise or alarming. Schneider struggled with the same transition to a No.1 role while still in Vancouver.
If Lack gets back to his first-half form and continues to develop on a trajectory similar to Schneider, however, the Canucks could face a familiar goaltending problem by the end of this season, if not sooner.
As is, they already risk losing Markstrom, who showed signs of coming around after making similar style changes under Melanson late last season, on waivers should they try to keep him and send him to the American Hockey League, where the presence of Joacim Eriksson could create a Swedish goaltending logjam.
Normally an excess of good goaltending is a nice problem to have, but in Vancouver it hasn’t always worked out that way. The irony is Miller working out with the Canucks might create the problem again.
… more to come on the rest of the goalie signings, starting with a breakdown of Hiller signing in Calgary that you can read here.