For a good example of the scenario that Canucks general manager Jim Benning wanted to avoid next season, consider the 2011-12 Toronto Maple Leafs.
That was the Leafs team that went into the season with James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson as their two goalies, despite the pair having combined for just 95 starts in NHL.
It did not go well for the Leafs, who, like the Canucks, play in a high-pressure Canadian market that can be particularly hard on goalies. Reimer, after an excellent 2010-11 rookie campaign that gave management confidence he could do it again, suffered a head injury in October and his game remained off all season. Meanwhile, Gustavsson mostly struggled when called upon, while Ben Scrivens and Jussi Rynnas weren’t any better.
The Leafs finished 12 points out of the playoffs and with the second-lowest save percentage in the league (.898). And while the experience didn’t completely ruin Reimer, it still gets referenced to this day and contributed in part to Toronto’s acquisition of Jonathan Bernier, who’s since taken over as the starter. The future for Reimer as a Leaf remains very much up in the air.
The Canucks could have gone into the 2014-15 season with a similar goalie tandem to that Leafs team. They could’ve gone with Eddie Lack, who impressed as a rookie in 2013-14, as the starter. They could’ve had Jacob Markstrom as the back-up. Combined, those two have 78 career NHL starts.
And hey, it might’ve worked out great. Goaltending is an unpredictable position. Teams don’t necessarily need big-money goalies to be successful. Lack and Markstrom have a lot of potential, too.
But instead of rolling the dice on youth and inexperience, Benning signed veteran Ryan Miller to a three-year, $18 million contract.
“He’s going to give our team confidence,” said Benning. “I think goaltending is the most important position on the team.”
The Miller signing was also clear evidence that the objective in Vancouver is to make the playoffs. It’s not to enter the Connor McDavid sweepstakes.
Said president of hockey operations Trevor Linden, to The Province: “We can’t have Daniel [Sedin] and Henrik [Sedin], Alex Burrows and Chris Higgins, all these veterans, and not give them every chance they need to win. As much as we felt Lack made great steps last year, Jim believes goaltending is the most important position in the game. He needed to know every night we had a chance to win and we’re going to be good in that position. That’s the foundation of your team. Nothing destroys confidence faster if you struggle at that position. We weren’t willing to risk that, and the three-year term gave us some flexibility.”
As poorly as Miller performed during his short stint in St. Louis, the 34-year-old was remarkably consistent during his many years with the Buffalo Sabres. In fact, from 2008-09 to 2013-14, his save percentage never finished below .915.
And at least publicly, Lack has been on board with the Miller signing.
“Ryan has been a great goalie in the league for a long time,” he told NHL.com, “and I’m going to try to learn from him.”