During another week of ugly losses for the Buffalo Sabres, the New York Rangers—to the surprise of no one—came to terms on a seven year, $59.5 million deal with their Vezina-winning netminder, Henrik Lundqvist.
Beyond the fact that they were to play the Lundqvist and his Rangers that night, the extension hit close to home for the Sabres.
Ryan Miller is in limbo, and this contract likely didn't make it any easier for him or the Sabres.
Miller's play has been nothing short of spectacular at most points this season. In his 21 starts, Miller has faced 763 shots, an average of 36.3 per game. That is by far the highest in the league with Miller in front of the next player by almost four shots per game. That by itself puts his 3.05 goals against average and his solid, but unspectacular, .917 save percentage in context.
Simply put, Miller has been the brightest spot on an otherwise incredibly dark season. He has not only earned a chance to secure a long-term deal similar to Lundqvist's, but he likely has also earned his way back onto the United States Olympic Team, something a lot of people felt he wouldn't be able to do.
Obviously, between his play and the Lundqvist extension, many began to wonder if Miller being traded was as sure of a thing as many had led them to believe.
What if Miller signed a similar deal here? Goaltenders don't grow on trees and, despite being 33 years old, Miller likely has at least four years left in him. And draft picks are so risky. A first-rounder does not always develop into a franchise player.
Ted Nolan then threw a bit more fuel on the fire by saying he did not want to trade Miller. Nolan understands as well as anyone how important a goalie is to a team—see Dominik Hasek—and trading away a Vezina winner who is also clearly the best player on your team at the moment likely doesn't make him feel comfortable moving forward.
That, however, is assuming that Miller wants to stay in Buffalo, something many have questioned since the beginning of last season, especially after Lindy Ruff was fired.
So what should the Sabres do with Miller?
The easy answer is to re-sign him for something similar to Tuukka Rask money (eight years, $56 million) and move on with him.
That puts him squarely in the middle of the rebuild but also allows him to be a piece to build around because no matter what the NHL is or will evolve into, a solid goaltender, or at least solid goaltending, is always going to be important.
So while that's the "easy" answer, it still is fraught with complications, the biggest being the salary cap moving forward.
As it stands today, the Sabres have about $35.5 million in cap room for next year, assuming no increase in the cap, which, frankly, is a bad assumption. But no one seems to agree how much higher the cap will go next year, so the status quo is the best starting point. Inking Miller to a $7 million per year deal—which could be a low estimate—would bring them down to approximately $28.5 million.
That's plenty, right? Wrong.
Just assuming the Sabres want to re-sign their restricted free agents, they have Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno, Luke Adam, Jamie McBain and Brayden McNabb to deal with. All five of those players will likely be on the NHL roster next season, and all will likely be due some level of a raise. To think you're getting away from those negotiations by committing less than $10 million of the cap annually is nuts.
Now you're down to around $18.5 million and you have Steve Ott and Matt Moulson staring you in the face. While many rightly believe Moulson is likely to leave in some fashion, be it the trade deadline or free agency, Ott has said he wants to stay and one has to believe the Sabres want him to stay.
Ott will be due a slight raise, and will likely cost the Sabres around $3.5 million annually. That's now $15 million in cap space.
Even without Moulson, the team needs to sign someone to replace him in body count at the very least. That may open the door for Joel Armia, but it could mean they pursue someone in free agency. Some names that may interest the Sabres include Dany Heatley, Milan Michalek, Ales Hemsky, Devin Setoguchi and Alex Steen. None of them will come cheaper than $5 million per season.
Now the Sabres are likely under $10 million in space and they have a few roster spots to fill. Sure, using a compliance buyout on Ville Leino will be a popular solution once again, but that just means you need to spend more to replace him as well.
It's not as if the Sabres' cap situation would be dire by signing Miller, but the final available cap number will be a lot less than many would have imagined, and spending to the cap in a rebuilding stage typically doesn't fair too well.
So that brings one to the idea of trading Miller, something Sabres fans have been waiting for all season long.
The return on Miller is going to be one of two things: way too much or way too little. That's likely to be the case because the market for a goaltender, even one of Miller's caliber, is not the best right now, especially when teams are nixed by a limited no-trade clause.
A few teams have been linked to Miller for awhile, including the Edmonton Oilers, the New York Islanders, the St. Louis Blues and the Anaheim Ducks, but a betting man would guess that at least Edmonton and probably the Isles were on Miller's no-trade list.
So in all reality, that leaves a pretty bare market right now, especially seeing the Ducks and Blues have been getting good enough goaltending to get them to the top of the Western Conference.
Essentially what it comes down to is this: The Sabres either need someone to start playing extremely poorly or to get hurt to open the market. Without one of those things happening, Sabres fans will be very underwhelmed with the return on any Miller trade, especially from a contender.
The worst part of this for the Sabres is that trading Miller for a stable of prospects and/or picks is probably the best long-term solution, but the only teams they'd get such a return from are likely on his no-trade list. The Islanders may as well have your grandmother in net right now and their general manager Garth Snow may be in the mood to trade away too much to potentially save his job.
So, again, the Sabres enter a wait-and-see mode, hoping that either a need arises or that Miller decides he wants to stay and signs a favorable extension. The odds either happens? Probably slim, but those are the team's best options right now.
Right now the only certainty in this ongoing saga is that Miller will see a lot of rubber thrown his way the next few months.
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