When Henrik Lundqvist leads his New York Rangers team onto the ice at First Niagara Center tonight, he’ll do so with a new sense of stability.
The goaltender signed a seven-year, $59.5 million contract extension on Wednesday. And that leads to questions around the Buffalo Sabres about the future of Ryan Miller.
Miller is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. Do the Sabres want to use him as an asset (see: trade bait) or build the franchise around him?
As far as interim head coach Ted Nolan is concerned, you build your future around Miller.
“You look at all the championship teams and it starts from goaltending out. ... I prefer you build around him rather than use him as a pawn to try and get something to make you better,” Nolan said. “You learn to deal with the now as a coach and we’ve got one of the better goaltenders in the world here and I’d like to build around him myself.”
Nolan said he doesn’t discuss contracts with players but has spoken with President of Hockey Operations Pat LaFontaine about creating a culture that draws in the best players.
“I talked to Pat about this and I said the one thing we want to do is create an environment where people want to come here and stay here,” Nolan said. “Hopefully he likes what we’re doing. You never know.”
Miller was not available to the media after Wednesday’s practice as he had a previously scheduled personal appointment.
With Lundqvist signing an extension, that leaves Miller, Jaroslav Halak (Blues), Ben Scrivens (Kings) and Jonas Hiller (Ducks) as the top unrestricted free agent goalies.
Nolan certainly sang the praises of Miller.
“You look at all the top guys, our top guy Ryan Miller, he’s consistent all the time,” Nolan said. “That’s why Lundqvist gets a big contract. There are those guys and there’s the rest of us.”
Sabres center Mikhail Grigorenko posted on Facebook late Wednesday afternoon that he was flying to Russia on Sunday to join his national team – and former Buffalo teammate Nikita Zadorov – for the World Junior Championships that open later this month in Sweden.
Grigorenko told reporters for the second straight day Wednesday that he had heard nothing about the tournament from the Russian Hockey Federation but that he remained interested in playing.
The Sabres said they had no information on the post or Grigorenko’s potential status but a source close to the situation told The News the process was moving forward and the team is expected to approve lending the 19-year-old so he can play in the tournament.
Speaking of goalies and attention, Jhonas Enroth played a solid game in Saturday’s 1-0 overtime loss at New Jersey, responding to criticism that Nolan had for him after his previous start in Toronto.
“What I say is how I feel. It wasn’t a good game for him, that game,” Nolan said of Enroth’s performance on Nov. 16 in a 4-2 loss at Toronto. Enroth gave up four goals on 22 shots.
He didn’t start again until Saturday, where he made 24 saves before giving up the game-winner late in overtime to Steve Bernier.
“He’s a good goalie,” Nolan said. “But certain nights you have to push buttons to get these guys to do it on a consistent basis. And that’s what we’re here for. I’m not here to make everybody like everything I say but we have to perform better and we have to play better.”
Cody McCormick will return to the lineup tonight after missing four games with an upper body injury.
The center hasn’t played since Nov. 21 in Philadelphia and has one goal and four assists in 20 games this season. After sitting out with the injury and four days in between games, McCormick is itching to get back in.
“I think everybody in the room is ready,” McCormick said. “These long breaks between games really gets you excited for the next game. We’ve practiced. We practiced hard. Everybody worked hard. We’re going to carry it into the next game. Just ready to play. It’s been too long.
“When you’re missing time and then we have a couple of hard practices, you’re not falling behind with that. You’re keeping up your cardio and your timing with the puck. It was beneficial for a guy like me.”
How will the Sabres make room on the roster? It’s possible that Alexander Sulzer moves to the injured reserve. He has missed the last three practices with an undisclosed injury. He’s not expected to play tonight.
Brayden McNabb was assigned to Rochester but most likely only so he could get some action as the Amerks hosted the Utica Comets on Wednesday night. Look for McNabb to be recalled today. ... Matt D’Agostini missed practice with flu-like symptoms but is expected to play tonight. ... Sabres draft pick J.T. Compher was named to the preliminary Team USA roster for the World Junior Championships. A freshman center at Michigan, he was the Sabres second-round pick (35th overall) last June. Compher leads all Big 10 freshman in scoring with 14 points (five goals, nine assists).