BUFFALO, N.Y. – Despite his newfound celebrity status after winning the Vezina Trophy and becoming a Winter Olympic star, Sabres goalie Ryan Miller stuck to his usual off-season routine.
“I laid pretty low and stayed out of the way,” Miller said Friday, noting he spent much of his summer living in happy anonymity in Southern California. “Every year, I get out and I just disappear the best I can.”
Turns out not everybody—particularly one of the most recognizable athletes in Buffalo—heads to Hollywood seeking attention.
Refreshed and recharged, Miller reappeared in town to join his teammates in reporting for training camp, which opens Saturday.
And there’s no hiding for Miller in knowing he’s being counted upon to lead the slightly retooled Sabres to a much more fulfilling finish than last year. It was a season in which they won the Northeast Division title before falling flat in the first round of the playoffs, when they were eliminated in six games by Boston.
Though disappointed in how the season ended, Miller is encouraged by many things he saw from a team that returned to the playoffs for the first time in three years.
“We came up short, so you evaluate,” Miller said. “And what I found was a lot of things I liked about last year. I had a lot of fun playing. And I’m going to try to continue moving things forward.”
It was a breakout season for Miller.
He was named the MVP of the Winter Games hockey tournament in leading the U.S. to win a silver medal. He set the franchise single-season record by winning 41 games. Miller then topped it off in June by become the first Sabres goalie since Dominik Hasek in 2001 to win the Vezina after a regular season in which he finished second with a 2.22 goals-against average and 92.9 save percentage.
The test now is for Miller to be able to maintain that level of dominance.
“It was a great year, a great step for him,” coach Lindy Ruff said. “But it’s putting last year behind you. You don’t want to live in the past.”
Ruff is already looking forward in believing the Sabres are talented enough to be regarded Stanley Cup contenders.
“I don’t think we’re that far away,” Ruff said.
That remains to be seen after an off-season in which the Sabres relatively stood pat.
Losing veteran defencemen Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman to free agency, Buffalo replaced them by adding Jordan Leopold and Shaone Morrisonn. They join a group of defencemen headed by Tyler Myers, the NHL’s rookie of the year, who had 48 points (11 goals, 37 assists), and logged a Sabres-best 23 minutes 44 seconds of ice time.
The team’s only other significant off-season move came in signing forward Rob Niedermayer.
Aside from being a solid two-way player, the 16-year NHL veteran being asked to add leadership to a team that’s proven fragile at times. It helps, too, that Niedermayer becomes the only player on the Sabres roster to have won a Stanley Cup, which he did in 2007 with Anaheim.
“I think this team has a good chance as any,” Niedermayer said before specifically noting Miller. “I think the goalie here is one of the best in the world. … I think he gives confidence to everybody.”
Defensively, the Sabres finished fourth in the NHL in allowing only 207 goals last season.
The trouble was an offence that was too inconsistent. Thomas Vanek, a three-time 30-goal scorer, led Buffalo with 28 goals, but endured a 20-game stretch in which he scored only six times.
Ruff is counting on several forwards—particularly underperforming right wing Drew Stafford—to provide more production. He’s also counting upon speedy Tyler Ennis to win a top-line job after he had a goal and three assists in the playoffs as a rookie.
“He’s a fearless kid that we’re looking for creativity out of,” Ruff said, referring to Ennis. “I think he can be a special player.”
In other news Friday, Sabres captain Craig Rivet has been cleared for contact but won’t take part in scrimmages during the first week of camp after having recovered from off-season shoulder surgery. Entering his 16th NHL season, the defenceman hasn’t ruled out this being his final year.