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?)

Stars give Lindell two-year extension

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More news out of Dallas, where the Stars have signed defenseman Esa Lindell to a two-year, $4.4-million contract extension.

From the release:

Lindell, 23, posted 18 points (6-12=18) in 73 games played for Dallas during the 2016-17 regular season, his first full season in the NHL. He finished second on the team by averaging 21:52 of time on ice per game and his +8 plus/minus rating finished third. Additionally, he finished second on the team with 119 blocked shots and tied for fifth with 93 hits.

The Stars still have a couple of restricted free agents on the back end. Both Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak are arbitration-eligible. Lindell was not.

Earlier today, it was reported that the Stars were buying out goalie Antti Niemi.

Dallas also signed forward Mark McNeill to a one-year, two-way contract extension. The 24-year-old was acquired from Chicago in the Johnny Oduya trade on Feb. 28.

Lightning extend Gourde — two years, $2 million

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Yanni Gourde has cashed in on an impressive 20-game cameo with Tampa Bay this season.

Gourde signed a two-year, $2 million extension on Monday, the Bolts announced. The deal came after the 25-year-old scored six goals and eight points in 20 games, while averaging 15:22 TOI per night.

Undrafted out of the Quebec League, Gourde has been a terrific AHL player since catching on with the Tampa Bay organization a few years ago.

He was instrumental in Syracuse’s run to the Calder Cup final this year — scoring 27 points in 22 games — and, given his new deal is of the one-way variety, seems primed to spend next year with the Lightning.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling to sign that kind of a deal knowing where I’ve come from,” Gourde said, per NHL.com. “It’s the organization that trusted me very early in my career, and I thank them for that.”

Carolina’s strategy of flipping picks for players ‘just didn’t pan out’

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In late May, the ‘Canes looked like a team primed to trade some draft picks.

GM Ron Francis kicked off proceedings by sending one of his 11 picks — a third-rounder — to Chicago for goalie Scott Darling. Shortly thereafter, Francis said his club had “the open for business sign out there,”suggesting he was ready to wheel and deal.

But said wheeling and dealing never occurred.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping to take a few less picks,” Francis said after he selected nine players at the draft, per ‘Canes Country. “We’d had a lot of discussions about trying to move picks for players, but it just didn’t pan out the way we had hoped.”

Prior to landing in Chicago, it was obvious the goal for Francis and head coach Bill Peters was to add pieces that’d help get the ‘Canes back into the playoffs for the first time since 2009. The team has shown steady improvement over the last three years — going from 30 to 35 to 36 wins — and had a nice late push before ultimately falling short this season.

“I think we have specific needs, very specific needs,” Peters said at Carolina’s end-of-year media availability. “So as a coach I’m going to give very specific names.”

As many clubs experienced at the draft, trades weren’t easy to orchestrate. It was a stark contrast to the flurry of action that proceeded the event — Jonathan Drouin to Montreal, Jordan Eberle to the Islanders, huge shakeups in both Arizona and Chicago.

The perceived weakness of said draft could’ve played a role in the lack of movement. It’s also worth noting that Francis did use one of his picks, a fifth-rounder, for Vegas to select Connor Brickley at the expansion draft.

And, to be clear, this doesn’t mean Carolina still can’t add players. Free agency opens on Saturday. But draft weekend certainly feels like an opportunity missed, given this year’s UFA market doesn’t project to be very strong.

Report: Stars to buy out Antti Niemi

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The Antti Niemi era in Dallas is mercifully over.

Per Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News, the Stars will place Niemi on waivers for the purposes of buying out the final year of his contract. The buyout will result in a $1.5 million cap hit in 2017-18 and 2018-19.

Niemi, 33, joined the Stars in 2015 with the hope he’d form an effective tandem with Kari Lehtonen.

But the experiment was a dismal failure. In 85 games over two seasons, Niemi registered a .900 save percentage, and the Stars responded last month by signing Ben Bishop to a six-year contract worth almost $30 million.

GM Jim Nill had hoped that one of Niemi or Lehtonen could be traded in the wake of the Bishop signing.

Lehtonen, 33, is still under contract for another year at a cap hit of $5.9 million. He had a .902 save percentage last season, higher than Niemi’s .892.