The question has been asked every week since the St. Louis Blues were ejected in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs: where will Ryan Miller play next season?
When the Blues signed Brian Elliott to an extension last week, we knew St. Louis was officially out of the running and, late in the week, we also learned two potential destinations – San Jose and Anaheim – were bowing out. ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun reported the Ducks are happy to move on with a tandem of Frederik Andersen and John Gibson, while the Sharks planned to forge ahead by targeting younger players for their “minor rebuild,” meaning a veteran acquisition like Miller wasn’t in the cards.
There was a time when, if a 33-year-old Vezina winner hit the open market as a UFA, he’d have teams lining up around the corner to sign him for a lot of money. About a decade ago, Miller could have basically picked any team to go to and they would gladly have thrown all sorts of money at him.
But today, the goaltending market is as weak as it’s been in a long while. Not only does it look like Miller won’t be able to go to the California destination he wanted, it may even be a challenge for him to get a $6.25 million deal, which would match the cap hit from his expiring contract. Free agent spending is crazy, but this is the current reality for over-30 goalies.
First of all, not a lot of teams are in the market for a No. 1 goalie. For the past year, the Ducks have been mentioned as the front-runner for Miller, but even they’re prepared to go with two goalies who gave started a combined 31 regular season NHL games. That’s not a condemnation of Miller so much as it is an example of how teams would rather save cap space to spend on the rest of the roster and either run with a goalie in their own pipeline, or acquire a stopper who has, or who they can get for, a smaller cap hit (like the Islanders with Jaroslav Halak, although they were probably long shots for Miller anyway).
As my colleague Brian Costello wrote at the end of last week, the goalie market is in favor of the team’s seeking to buy, and not the teams looking to sell or the players looking to sign a home run contract. Prior to the Miller trade from Buffalo to St. Louis, I looked back at the goalie trade market and how weak the returns had been. And although I was wrong when I suggested Buffalo should expect a weak return for Miller, was it even close to worth it for the Blues? Would they have done any worse with Halak in net? Next March, would any team pay that much for a goalie again? It’s hard to see why.
If the results difference would have been negligible between Halak and Miller, how hungry will any team be to invest $6 million-plus in Miller, who had a sub-.900 with the Blues, one of the best defensive teams in the league? If younger, cheaper goalies like Gibson and Dustin Tokarski have had their moments and a reclamation project like Steve Mason even starred in the playoffs, why not chance a cheap tandem instead of locking in to a 33-year-old, who will eventually decline, for a long time and a lot of money?
What Miller would bring to the teams who are interested in his services is stability in net and, hypothetically, he would remove the aspect of “chance.” For the most part, you know what Miller brings to the table. He’s had a save percentage of at least .915 each year since 2008-09 and is a good leader in the dressing room. He’d bring a management team the freedom to focus on other roster issues and not have to worry so much about adapting to the ups and downs of a young goalie.
But there’s a risk to any road taken: when will Miller stop having those .915 save percentage seasons? Will his contract eventually become an unmanageable millstone around the neck of the next team who lands him? Will the long-term payoff for a team be better with an ageing Miller, by playing with a rested tandem, or by committing to developing a home grown goalie?
Because California now appears to be off the table, we have to start looking at teams like Vancouver (since they’re on the West Coast) and Washington as potential destinations. Miller's not going to end up where he originally wanted and it’s looking more and more likely he won’t even land with a contender, but a secondary or even tertiary challenger instead. Not ideal for him at age 33.
Any team considering targeting Miller this off-season, though, has to ask themselves the ultimate question about what his contribution will be and what his value is in dollars:
Is Ryan Miller still an elite goaltender capable of leading a team the way Henrik Lundqvist is leading the Rangers – or would his acquisition be an expensive “name” pick up who would gets worse or only marginally better results, at a higher price?
What kind of goalie do you need to be successful in the NHL these days, and how much of your cap space should you commit to the position?
The answer, at least as it pertains to Miller, is as unclear as ever.