It was Jan. 15 at the Air Canada Centre and the Buffalo Sabres were in town to play the Leafs. The game went to a shootout and Toronto prevailed when a Tyler Bozak shot trickled through Ryan Miller for a weak winner.
After the game, the scene in the Sabres room around Miller was grim. He scowled, looking like he would’ve paid a million bucks for an invisibility cloak, as media bombarded him. The questions were about the bad one that slipped past him and, worse yet, the swirling rumors he’d be shipped out of Buffalo, the only NHL city he’d ever known.
As the scrum scattered, I tried to get a word in as Sabres personnel escorted Miller away.
“But Ryan, wait!” I called across the room awkwardly. “It want to talk about something happy! The Olympics! Team USA!”
To his credit, he took a weary step back toward me, but the Sabres staff decided he’d done enough. I came away feeling sorry for Miller – or as sorry as one can feel for a millionaire married to an actress. He was mentally and physically exhausted.
Flash forward to this past Tuesday night at the ACC, when Miller’s new team, the St. Louis Blues, had just embarrassed the Leafs in a 5-3 win that wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated. Miller had all the time in the world for every Leafs beat writer, travelling Blues scribe and even Buffalo reporters who crossed the border to catch up with their team’s former hero. Miller was all smiles, even cracking jokes when I asked a somewhat silly question about which Blue he’d want taking the winning shot in a playoff overtime.
“It has to be Oshie,” he said, grinning and staring for a second. “Sorry, that’s it! Is that all you need to know?”
What a night-and-day difference two months made. He’s gone from the league’s worst team to the league’s very best, from a Buffalo team allowing the second-most shots per game (34.7) to a St. Louis team allowing the second-fewest (26.2). He’s looked plenty comfortable so far, going 8-2-1 with a 2.13 goals-against average and .913 save percentage.
The question now is whether Miller, a pending unrestricted free agent, remains a Blue long-term. My take: it’s a perfect fit.
We know the Blues want to re-up Miller already, ideally before he hits the open market. With Jaroslav Halak gone and Brian Elliott a UFA to be, St. Louis has 16 players signed for 2014-15 with more than $25 million in projected cap space, as per capgeek.com. Money will not be an issue when it comes to Miller.
Term might be, of course. Might Miller want a long-term deal similar to the one Henrik Lundqvist inked in December? Do the Blues want to pay Miller until his 40s? Miller could thus test the open market in search of a team desperate enough to pay him for seven years (only the Blues could pay him for eight).
But who might that team be? There’s lots of buzz of Miller jonesing for California, as his wife, Noureen DeWulf, lives there. But what team needs him? The Los Angeles Kings are set with Jonathan Quick and the San Jose Sharks have Antti Niemi. Anaheim gets mentioned a lot, but even if Jonas Hiller walks, the Ducks are loaded in net with Frederik Andersen and Future Watch No. 2 overall prospect John Gibson. If I’m Ducks GM Bob Murray, I’m not interested. Not at Miller’s price.
So if we scratch the California teams, who else wants Miller? The lowly Islanders would essentially be a reversion to his Buffalo situation. The Wild wouldn’t get him any closer to his wife.
In St. Louis, Miller finds himself in a city most NHLers rave about, where he faces less work than he ever has. He’ll have a capable backup who can take heat off him, be it Jake Allen or a returning Elliott. He’ll have a team guaranteed to contend for years, as its best pieces, Alex Pietrangelo, David Backes, Alexander Steen, T.J. Oshie, Jaden Schwartz and prospects like Vladimir Tarasenko, are all 30 or younger.
Even if staying in St. Louis means Miller takes a discount, maybe a happy life situation and repeated chances at a Stanley Cup are worth more than an extra million. Especially when you’ve made $40 million in your career already.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin