Sometimes, you just know. If you’ve seen enough hockey stars reach the end of the line in Buffalo, you can feel it coming.
You knew it was over for Phil Housley when he didn’t go down to block Stephane Richer’s game-winner here in the 1990 playoffs. You knew it was the end for Dominik Hasek when he bolted out of the locker room after giving up the overtime winner to Darius Kasparaitis in Game Seven in ’01.
When Danny Briere was the last Sabre to leave the home ice after the Sabres lost to Ottawa in the ’07 conference finals, you knew he was saying goodbye.
Now, the time has come for Ryan Miller to move on. In fact, if the Sabres were a forward-thinking organization, Miller would have been gone by now. But after Friday night’s debacle at First Niagara Center, it’s hard to imagine Miller coming back to Buffalo next season.
It’s no revelation to suggest that Miller won’t be here next season. He has one year left on his contract. There’s virtually no chance the Sabres will offer him a lucrative extension. What use does a mediocre, rebuilding team have for a $6 million goaltender?
But Miller’s departure seems like a foregone conclusion after Friday night’s humiliating home-ice meltdown against the Rangers.
When Miller waved sarcastically to the jeering crowd, he might as well have been waving farewell to Buffalo. It was a sad moment, the ugly culmination of a hockey season that began with high promise but quickly collapsed into public disappointment and disgust.
There have been countless low moments the last two seasons. But Friday was the nadir for this sorry franchise. It’s one thing to be eliminated; it’s another for it to happen on a night when the franchise goalie, the guy who is supposed to be the team’s emotional pillar, snaps under the pressure.
To an extent, I can sympathize with Miller. The Rangers’ first two goals bounced in off skates. The fans treated him harshly, just the same. But Miller let the crowd get in his head. He seemed distracted when he flubbed the puck and handed the Rangers a third goal with 3.2 seconds left in the first period.
Miller should have left his rage in the locker room between periods. But the crowd was still on his mind in the second period. Early in the period, he fielded a harmless dump-in and fired the puck angrily into the boards as the crowd hooted at him. Then, as play resumed, he gave a mock wave to the crowd.
It was classic Miller. Sometimes, he can’t let things go. That was part of Hasek’s twisted genius. He had a very short memory. Miller can be great for stretches. But misfortune has a way of distracting him and allowing mistakes – either his or his teammates – to be compounded.
That’s why he has never lived up to the myth of the elite goalie. Miller has been very good at times. But he has been average for prolonged stretches and never quite good enough to carry the Sabres to the promised land.
Three years ago, he was the MVP of the Olympics and nearly carried the Americans to the gold medal against Canada. It was a heady time for Miller and for Buffalo. I felt Miller had arrived as one of the world’s elite goalies, capable of leading the Sabres on a long Stanley Cup ride.
In retrospect, it seems like an emotional overreaction. Miller’s star flickered soon enough. The Sabres haven’t won a playoff series since 2007. They’ve missed the playoffs two years in a row. The idea of Miller as the cornerstone of a championship franchise seems fanciful and dated.
Miller has played well enough this season. He has been the least of the Sabres’ troubles. His even-strength save percentage is roughly the same as it was when he won the Vezina in 2010. The defense in front of him has been dreadful. The specialty teams have been bad, and Miller’s numbers have suffered.
So there’s no point in keeping him around any longer. Miller was the most popular athlete in town for awhile. Now he’s the victim of a toxic environment, where disgruntled fans express their disdain in the only way they can.
It’s like a doomed marriage, where the parties try to reconcile but realize that a breakup is the best option. Even your friends know that starting over is best for everyone.
Miller is 32. It’s difficult for him to live apart from his wife, who is an actress in Los Angeles. He is entering the latter part of his prime. He’s running out of time to win the Cup and knows it’s not going to happen here any time soon.
He admitted as much after Friday’s debacle, when he was reminded that Patrick Roy had a similar experience at the end in Montreal.
“Well, I would love to have what happened after that,” Miller said. “Just saying. It doesn’t mean I want to leave, but if that’s what you’re getting at. [Roy] won two Stanley Cups after that so, hey, why not?”
Why not, indeed? Roy went directly to Canadiens management after getting a Bronx cheer from fans in 1995. He was traded to Colorado and won two Cups. Like Roy and Hasek, Miller would welcome the chance to win it elsewhere.
It’s in everyone’s best interest for the Sabres to move him as soon as possible. The longer Darcy Regier fiddles, the less bargaining power he has.
There are many logical reasons for it to happen. There’s money, of course. The Sabres could put that $6 million to better use in a rebuilding. By moving Miller, they could find out once and for all if Jhonas Enroth is a No. 1 goalie. He’s not going to prove it playing once a week behind Miller.
It’s time for the Sabres to abandon the notion of the franchise goalie. The top teams moved away from it years ago. Miller has been the primary force on the ice, and in the locker room, for too long. There can be no genuine culture change while Miller remains in Buffalo.
I don’t mean to vilify him. Miller has given the Sabres some very good years. He tries to do and say the right thing, sometimes to his detriment. It’s not easy for a bright, emotional player to strike the right tone all the time, to find the balance between raw honesty and diplomacy.
Miller deserves better than being humiliated on his home ice. After Friday, there’s a belief that the Sabres won’t put him back out there this season, that he has played his final home game in Buffalo.
I hope that’s not the case. Miller wanted desperately to win here. His heart was in the right place. I can’t imagine he wants it to end this way. If his time really is short, Miller ought go out there for one more home game, so he and the fans can say a proper goodbye.