Hockey Day Preview: Ryan Miller struggles to carry Sabres again

When you’re on the streak of a lifetime, it’s important not to ask silly questions like “How can I possibly follow this up?” or “Will I ever reach these heights again?” Instead, you just ride the wave of success as far as it will take you and hope that you can navigate those currents once again when things go back to normal.

Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews were among the players who had incredible 2010 runs, but Ryan Miller’s year stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of them. You might already know about his accomplishments already, but if not, here’s a quick rundown:

  • He (fairly easily) won the Vezina Trophy for the 2009-10 season.
  • Miller’s stellar goaltending powered the U.S. Olympic team to overachieve their way to a silver medal, as the team fell one iconic overtime gold medal winning goal away from the highest glory.
  • Miller was the catalyst for the Sabres’ surprising Northeast Division title run, even if the team fell short in the first round against the Boston Bruins.

It’s the kind of complete year that is hard to top, something that probably isn’t lost on the talented goalie as he struggles mightily during the 2010-11 campaign.

The drop-off

Miller only lost 18 games in regulation during each of the 08-09 and 09-10 seasons. He could match that mark already if the Sabres lose to the Washington Capitals today. After earning a career-high 92.9 save percentage behind a spotty Buffalo defense, he’s down to 91 percent this season (slightly lower than his career average of 91.4). He also has the highest goals against average (2.74) of any season in which he played 40 or more games, although he has time to move that below his career-worst mark of 2.73 from 06-07.

Buffalo might be making strides in the standings, but that probably has more to do with Drew Stafford’s recent offensive outburst than a significant improvement from Miller. In fact, judging from his split stats, February’s been his worst month with an average GAA of 3.11 and 89.2 save percentage. (It’s the only month in which his GAA is above three and his save percentage is below 90 percent.)

So, we’ve established the fact that Miller is falling far short of his possibly unsustainable 09-10 output. But the questions are: why is he struggling and is he still an elite goalie?

Explaining his struggles

If you ask me, it all comes down to the fact that Buffalo put way too much pressure on Miller to be one of the absolute best goalies on a nightly basis. The team’s defense wasn’t exactly outstanding last season, but they allowed steady-if-unspectacular mainstays Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder go for less proven replacements. They also assumed that Tyler Myers could match his breakthrough rookie season, which is asking a lot from a young player who is probably still growing into his lanky frame.

A shaky defense already puts Miller in a tough spot, but a lack of a go-to backup places even more weight on the American netminder’s shoulders. While the Rangers gave their workhorse goalie Henrik Lundqvist a capable backup in Martin Biron and the Devils invested in solid No. 2 Johan Hedberg for Martin Brodeur, the Sabres stuck with a second banana they clearly don’t trust in Patrick Lalime.

Lalime has appeared in seven games this season, going a nauseating 0-5-0 with a 2.96 GAA and 89 save percentage. The team’s lack of trust in Lalime and excessive reliance on Miller was clear when Jhonas Enroth relieved their No. 1 goalie after Miller played 31 consecutive games.

Conclusions

The Sabres skimped on a decent backup and assumed that Miller could clean up the messes of an even more fragile defense. Does that mean that his struggles are all Buffalo’s fault? No, some of it falls at Miller’s feet, but the team put him in a position to fail this season.

Buffalo can still make the playoffs and Miller is far from a lost cause, but the team would be wise to improve their suspect defense and take advantage of what should be a buyer’s market for reliable backups this summer. (Or even during the trade deadline … Ty Conklin and Chris Phillips, anyone?)

Looking to make the leap: Travis Sanheim

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This post is part of Flyers Day on PHT…

There appears to be a competition brewing for a spot on the Flyers blue line this upcoming season and 21-year-old Travis Sanheim is keen to throw his name into the mix.

Taken 17th overall in the 2014 NHL Draft, Sanheim has seen a rise in his offensive production, capping off his junior career in 2016 with 15 goals and 68 points, averaging well over a point per game in the WHL. He made the jump full-time to the professional ranks last season and provided more optimism for a Flyers franchise that has built a solid prospect pool.

In 76 games with the AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms, Sanheim reached 10 goals and 37 points, finishing second in scoring among defensemen on that team. According to numerous reports, he followed that up with a strong showing at development camp earlier this summer, too.

Now, the goal is to come to training camp next month and earn a spot on the NHL club.

From CSN Philly:

Under general manager Ron Hextall’s philosophy of earn what you get, Sanheim will have his chance. But is there room? The Flyers are at a numbers crunch on the blue line. There is expected to be two spots open, presumably for Robert Hagg and Sam Morin, both of whom acquitted themselves well during their April NHL debuts.

“It’s going to come down to camp,” Sanheim told reporters in the summer. “I feel like I’m ready. I’m going to compete for a spot and until somebody tells me differently, that’s my goal. I’m coming to make the Flyers.

“It doesn’t matter what team you’re playing on. You have to work your way up the lineup. It’s just like me this year. I had to work my way up the lineup in the AHL just to start playing more and more minutes, and getting power play time and (penalty kill) time. It’s going to be the same thing. Nobody said it was going to be easy and I was going to be slotted into the first pairing.”

The Flyers took defensemen in the first rounds of three consecutive drafts, from 2013 to 2015, with Sanheim’s selection sandwiched in the middle. In 2015, Philly took Ivan Provorov at seventh overall. At just 20 years old, the Russian blue liner wasted little time in making an impact on the NHL roster, playing in all 82 games last season, scoring six goals and 30 points.

Morin and Sanheim have each had time to develop in the minors, with the former spending the past two seasons in the AHL, which should prove beneficial to the growth in their games heading into September.

“Whenever you play in the American League you get a leg up because you’ve been playing at a higher level of competition for a full year,” Hextall said, per the Courier-Post.

“You expect those guys to come in and be a little more NHL ready than a kid that’s coming right out of junior, but the players are gonna dictate who’s on our team. We’ll see how it goes.”

Poll: Will the Flyers make the playoffs?

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This post is part of Flyers Day on PHT…

The Philadelphia Flyers missed the playoffs by seven points last season, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that their future looks bright.

Many experts believe that they have the best group of prospects in the NHL. This summer, they added Nolan Patrick to the fold by selecting him second overall in the 2017 Entry Draft. If Patrick could stay healthy, he could provide the Flyers with a nice offensive boost next season.

Philadelphia can use all the help they can get up front, as they ranked 20th in goals for in 2016-17. The most disappointing Flyer in terms of offensive production had to be Claude Giroux. The captain managed to put up a respectable 58 points in 82 games, but he only found the back of the net 14 times (his lowest total since he scored 13 goals in 48 games during the lockout shortened season in 2012-13).

They have other quality forwards on the roster. Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek are still around, Travis Konecny has a year under his belt, but there are some serious question marks surrounding the supporting cast.

Brayden Schenn, who finished second on the team in goals with 25, was traded to St. Louis in the off-season. The Flyers received a package that included Jori Lehtera, who had struggles of his own last year. Lehtera, Valtteri Filppula, Matt Read and the rest of the forwards will have to step up.

On defense, they’re blessed with some talented options. Shayne Gostisbehere struggled in his second year, but still managed to put up 39 points. If he can play like he did during his rookie campaign, that will help his team tremendously.

Ivan Provorov, who played his first full season last year, was impressive. The 20-year-old had 30 points in 82 games, and he should be even better now that he’s going into his second year.

Andrew MacDonald, Radko Gudas and Brandon Manning are also expected to round out the blue line in 2017-18.

Youngsters like Samuel Morin, Travis Sanheim, Philippe Myers and Robert Hagg are all close to contributing with the big club in the near future.

Between the pipes, they went out and signed Michal Neuvirth to an extension and they added Brian Elliott in free agency. That still doesn’t give them a clear number one goalie, so it’s difficult to see envision how that’ll all work out. We’ll see where Anthony Stolarz fits into the equation.

Last season, the Capitals, Penguins, Blue Jackets grabbed the top three spots in the Metropolitan Division, while the Rangers and Maple Leafs earned the Wild Card spots. The Islanders and Lightning both finished ahead of the Flyers in the race for the final playoff spots in the East.

If the Flyers do earn s postseason berth, it’ll be interesting to see which one of those teams won’t be qualifying for playoffs.

Will Philadelphia make the playoffs? You can have your say by voting in the poll below. Also, feel free to leave your opinion in the comments section.

It’s Philadelphia Flyers day at PHT

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The Philadelphia Flyers missed the playoffs last season, but the disappointment probably didn’t last too long after the events of the draft lottery a few weeks later.

The Flyers entered the lottery with a 2.2 per cent chance of landing the No. 1 overall pick. That selection eluded them, but they still moved up to the second overall pick in June’s Entry Draft. The Devils decided to take Nico Hischier first, leaving Philly to select fellow top prospect Nolan Patrick.

Philly has since signed Patrick to his entry-level contract. The biggest question for Patrick is his health, following a 2016-17 WHL season interrupted by injury. His aim was to resume skating in the middle of July.

Philly traded forward Nick Cousins to Arizona prior to the expansion draft. But the biggest shake-up this offseason in Philly was a draft-day trade that sent Brayden Schenn to St. Louis in exchange for Jori Lehtera, the 27th overall pick in this year’s draft and a conditional first-round pick in 2018.

Philly didn’t bring back goalie Steve Mason, who has signed with the Winnipeg Jets. The Flyers’ goaltending duo heading into next season has Michal Neuvirth alongside Brian Elliott, who left Calgary and signed for two years at $5.5 million in Philadelphia.

After three years with the Flyers, defenseman Michael Del Zotto has moved on to the Canucks, while Roman Lyubimov has returned to the KHL.

Today at PHT, we’ll discuss the key storylines facing the Flyers heading into next season.

Report: Red Wings RFA Athanasiou could sign in Russia

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With training camp approaching, Andreas Athanasiou is still without a contract for the upcoming season.

The 23-year-old forward and restricted free agent posted 18 goals and 29 points in 64 games for the Detroit Red Wings last season in the final year of his entry-level contract with an annual average value of $902,500.

Based on a report Tuesday afternoon, traveling overseas to play next season could be an option for Athanasiou, one of the bright young forwards in the Red Wings organization.

Earlier this month, Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said the organization has made a “number of offers” to Athanasiou.

One of the issues facing Detroit right now is the salary cap, which the Red Wings are currently over by almost $4 million, according to CapFriendly.