Ryan Miller has shown over the past few years that he is one of the best goaltenders in the world. He has played extremely well throughout his career in Buffalo, and was the main story of the 2010 Winter Olympics with his stellar performance. However, this season Miller is in the lower half of NHL goalies in statistics such as Goals Allowed Average and save percentage. Even though Miller has been hurt for a few games this season, the Sabres have struggled in the 13 games that he has started as well. Why is this? Has Miller lost his touch in goal? Absolutely not. The Sabres front office is to blame for Miller’s struggles this season.
This offseason, Buffalo’s top 2 defenders were free agents. Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman were consistent defenders who had anchored the defense for years. However, Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier, known for his conservative free agency moves and his inability and unwillingness to sign big contracts, let both of these players sign elsewhere. The Buffalo defense was left completely depleted, and was left to be led by a second year player in Tyler Myers. Regier then signed a mediocre defender in Jordan Leopold to offset the loss of the two defensive anchors in the offseason. In the early part of the season, Leopold has shown an affinity for turning the puck over in critical situations, and often in the defensive zone, which consistently puts Miller in bad spots and leads to many goals that are given up through no fault of Miller. He hasn’t lost the touch, but has no one in front of him to help deflect pressure from the opposing offense.
Therefore, defenders, often more so than the goaltenders themselves, are the major factors that determine the performance of goaltenders. The goaltenders need to be talented, but the talent differential of goaltenders at the NHL level is often very miniscule. The difference stems more from the quality and chemistry of the defenders in front of the goaltenders. Defenders who work together, work with the goaltender, and control the puck in the zone make a larger impact than the talent or fundamentals of the goalie himself.
Consider the playoffs last season. The Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup behind rookie goaltender Antti Niemi. Niemi had shown himself to be vulnerable at times, but played well enough in the playoffs to win the Stanley Cup. However, Chicago thought so little of his performance that they walked away from his deal after he was awarded arbitration for the staggering salary of $2.75 million (sense the sarcasm). The Blackhawks organization could not have been as impressed as all the analysts were with Niemi’s performance. More likely, the Blackhawks realized that, as I have mentioned, the difference between the talent and fundamentals of goaltenders is so miniscule. The organization realized that quality defenders like Duncan Keith and Brian Campbell were much more important to lock up long term. Niemi is a good goaltender, but not a top 5 goaltender; Niemi was not why the Blackhawks won the Cup last season. Defense is the most important factor, and because of this Chicago will not struggle in the transition from Antti Niemi to Marty Turco in net.
Consider the Philadelphia Flyers. The team went to the Stanley Cup Finals behind journeyman goaltender Michael Leighton and seasoned, seasoned, and extra seasoned veteran goalie Brian Boucher (who hadn’t played meaningful hockey in nearly a decade). However, the defense carried these goaltenders to impressive performances throughout the playoffs. Chris Pronger especially had a major impact, as he logged heavy minutes and led the Philadelphia defense the whole season. Neither Boucher nor Leighton will be known as top goalies, but they led the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals, whereas goalies like Martin Brodeur and Ryan Miller were ousted in the first round of the playoffs. Defense is the key.
Marc-Andre Fleury is another classic example. He is a goalie that was a bit overhyped after he won the Stanley Cup, but always lacked fundamentals and showed a propensity to flail in net and not stay balanced. Fleury always had a great defense in front of him, which hid many of his flaws. However, in the past 2 years he has lost several quality defenders, including Sergei Gonchar this offseason, and Hal Gill the year before. Now, Pittsburgh is lacking depth at defense, and it has clearly affected Fleury. Fleury has been the biggest disappointment in goal this season, and has been replaced by backup Brent Johnson. One has to realize how difficult it is to lose the top spot on the depth chart in the first 7 games after a 3 year history in net with the franchise that includes: an Eastern Conference Championship (2008), a Stanley Cup (2009), and a 4th place finish in the Eastern Conference (2010). However, the Pittsburgh organization realizes that Fleury lacks mechanics in net, and no longer has such a quality defense behind him to compensate for his mistakes. In other words, they realize that defense is the key, Fleury isn’t the goalie everyone thought he was, and Johnson has slightly better mechanics right now.
Therefore, while Miller might still have the best lateral movement in the league, might have the best instincts, and all else equal, might be the best goalie in hockey, he (and every other goalie) needs defense in front of him. The Buffalo front office left Miller out to dry this offseason by losing the starting defensive line to free agency, and, quite simply, it is the reason that Miller is struggling in net right now.