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Jhonas Enroth is suddenly a star in Sweden. He's met members of the royal family and been cheered by tens of thousands in the King's Garden after winning the world championships this week.

Back in Buffalo, Enroth remains a backup goaltender. It'll be that way as long as Ryan Miller is in town.

Miller's residency is in doubt, however, so Enroth could inherit the starting role he's long coveted.

“I'm ready,” he said.

Enroth wants the Sabres to feel confident he can play on a nightly basis. He'll be 25 years old next season and has spent five years in the organization. He's certain he has matured into a starting goalie.

He took another huge step this month. Enroth was named the top goaltender at the world championships after leading Sweden to the gold medal. He went 5-2-1 with a 1.15 goals-against average and .956 save percentage as the co-hosts knocked off Canada, Finland and Switzerland in the elimination round.

“I've been growing a lot,” Enroth said. “I want to play more. My goal is to be a starter one year in the NHL, and right now Ryan is the starter here. It's kind of hard to take the job from him here, but we'll see what happens.”

Enroth has shown signs he's ready. His numbers, in fact, are similar to the ones recorded by Miller this season and at the same stage of their careers:

• Miller went 17-17-5 this year with a 2.81 goals-against average and .915 save percentage. Enroth was 4-4-1 with a 2.60 and .919.

• Enroth has played 53 games in the NHL, with a 21-18-7 record, 2.72 GAA and .914 save percentage. Through his first 53 games, Miller was 30-19-4 with a 2.67 and .906.

“I feel pretty comfortable when I get back-to-back starts and stuff like that, so I think I'm ready,” Enroth said. “I learned a lot from this season, and from last season, too. You always learn from experience, and I'm just trying to build on this season for next year.”

The impressive showing in Sweden was a carryover from his time in Buffalo. He closed the season with a stellar nine-game run. If he hadn't, he might not have started anywhere.

Enroth had a 15-month winless skid weighing on him when he skated into the crease March 7 in New Jersey. Another subpar showing might have gotten him booted from the NHL.

“Honestly, I probably was backed up to a wall there that night,” Enroth said. “I needed a good effort that night, so I'm pretty happy I came out strong.”

Enroth stopped the Devils' first 25 shots as Buffalo entered the final seven minutes with a 2-0 lead. New Jersey scored on a power play then tied it with 1:06 to go as Enroth cramped up on the goal and left the eventual 3-2 shootout loss.

It was his first start under coach Ron Rolston, and he earned six more. Enroth put up starting-caliber stats during the final nine appearances, going 4-2-1 with a 1.98 GAA and .939 save percentage. He was 4-1-1 with a 1.55 and .953 in his seven starts.

“They obviously were very huge for me,” Enroth said, “to prove to myself and everyone else that I still can play in this league.”

Enroth needs to maintain the consistency to be a starter. His career has been an up-and-down ride:

• First 29 games: 17-6-3, 2.57, .915.

• Next 15: 0-10-3, 2.62, .898.

• Last nine: 4-2-1, 1.98, .939.

“The games I played bad I just felt scared and I wasn't comfortable,” Enroth said. “I played on my heels. I need to play more aggressive and stuff like that. That's something I've learned from and something I need to remember.”

Enroth has delivered similar numbers to Miller while cashing a much smaller paycheck. Miller has one year left on a deal that pays $6.25 million annually. Enroth is a restricted free agent who made $675,000 last season. His qualifying offer will be $761,250.

The money saved by dealing Miller and elevating Enroth could be used to fill holes on a team that's missed the playoffs in two straight seasons. The draft June 30 could become a Sabres swap meet, though the Roberto Luongo saga shows goaltending trades can be difficult. Miller's contract is more manageable than Luongo's 12-year deal.

“We get to the draft, and everything's unpredictable,” Miller said. “I mean, everyone thought Luongo was going to get traded, and look where he is. He's right where he is. … It's just a weird landscape.”

Miller, who'll be 33 in July, is by far the elder statesman in an organization that is filled with young goalies. In addition to Enroth, the Sabres have David Leggio (28), Matt Hackett (23), Connor Knapp (23) and Nathan Lieuwen (21) in the minor leagues, while Andrey Makarov (20) and Linus Ullmark (19) have shined for their junior teams.

If the Sabres deal Miller, they could have Enroth start in Buffalo with either Leggio or Hackett as the backup. Knapp, Lieuwen and Makarov could split time in Rochester or the ECHL.

Leggio is set to become an unrestricted free agent. He was the Amerks' MVP after going 38-24-1 with a 2.56 GAA and .924 save percentage.

“David is obviously a very good goaltender,” Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier said. “He's going to be unrestricted. He is going to have some freedom, some rights, and we're going to sit down and talk about the goaltending situation because with the addition of Matt Hackett and even Connor Knapp and Nathan Lieuwen, we've got some decisions to make.”



email: jvogl@buffnews.com