Complacency breeds inconsistency - a lesson Ryan Miller was forced to learn the hard way last year. Don’t get me wrong, he played remarkably well, even heroic at times. But with no big guns in the lineup, he found out exactly what level of work ethic and focus it actually takes to carry a mediocre team for an entire season. Nevertheless, a vital lesson was learned, and it is with this “transition” year under his belt that I feel Miller is primed to have a great fantasy season.
It has already been an interesting summer for Sabres goaltending, as amidst the contract negotiations pertaining to Miller’s tenure in Buffalo, the organization entered free agency seeking a proven backup. So in came Patrick Lalime, a nine-year veteran who proved in a Blackhawks uniform that he's totally capable of potentially carrying an NHL team once again.
Now it’s my belief this acquisition truly comes on the heels of an over-worked Miller appearing in a franchise single-season record 76 games last season, so don’t be surprised if Lalime plays close to 20 games. Otherwise he probably wouldn’t have signed there in the first place. His upside and progression is a major reason why Miller will be forced to play more consistently next season. Honestly, acquiring Lalime to me was more about Miller playing at his best all season long and squeezing four to five more wins out of him. If they bring in a backup that can add four or five more as well, more power to them.
It also looks as if Buffalo will have a much more dependable defensive core than last season. It was a chaotic whirlwind after they lost Campbell to San Jose, but bringing in Craig Rivet and still seeking a top-six defenseman, Buffalo will fare better on the penalty kill and limit odd-man rushes. Sure, Rivet may not be the true physical player that many label him as, but his overall stand-up style of play will give Miller much more room to breathe in his crease.
Miller’s mediocre season ended with a 2.64 goals against average and 90.6% save percentage, so his stats will improve this season with fewer minutes between the pipes. Miller has also seen a tremendous rise in the number of shots faced over the last three seasons, going from 1,440 in 48 games played in 2005-06 to 1,886 in 63 games played in 2006-07 to 2,104 shots in 76 games played last year.
Ironically, however, he saw just an average of 27.68 shots per game last year, while the year before he saw a shade under 30 shots per game. So last year was more about the number of quality scoring chances he faced over the course of a record-high 76-game season than the actual level of talent.
With more games played comes more shots and with more shots comes more goals against. That’s an expectation all goalies understand and should welcome at some point in their career. But what goalies don’t welcome is an increased amount of traffic in front of them, including deflections, screens, tips and re-directions. And with less scoring chances, but potentially more routine, effortless shots per game, now there’s more room for Miller to see shots clearly and stay in control of his game.
It is this foundation of support both in the lineup and on the ice that will give Miller the consistency he needs to have a great season next year. I project him to play 65 games if he stays healthy and hit the 40-win mark with a better save percentage and goals-against average than last year. He will still see an average of 30 shots per game, but the scoring chances will decline and the percentage of scoring chances that Miller stops will also increase.
I also want to point out something very important to all of the Miller believers, fans and owners out there. It has to do with the amount of focus he needs to perform at a high level game-in, game-out. We all know he likes to sit on the bench stare at the boards in order to focus. It seems like a superstitious but smart thing to do in order to get ready for an NHL game, right. But how much mental focus is being wasted on non-game situations?
One thing I have learned about this aspect of hockey was through Dominik Hasek’s career in Detroit. His work ethic in practices and games was at such a high level no matter what and it was something his teammates always admired. But Hasek was always VERY relaxed off the ice and away from the rink so that as soon as he entered the locker room, he was like a light switch turning on. He had saved all of his mental energy and focus strictly for the game and for the practice. No energy was wasted outside of what was needed to perform at a high level in a game or practice.
The amount of focus needed to perform well in an NHL game is a very large amount, so there are some goalies that may have a tendency to over-extend it by trying to focus too hard way too early before a game. Maybe the key for Miller is to focus more directly before a game so it can last an entire 60 minutes. There’s absolutely no way to quantify something like this, but it’s just a good example!