Given the actions of the Vancouver Canucks in recent days, weeks and months, it’s reasonable to wonder what a team that is rebuilding, retooling, or however you want to term the gradual dismantling of the former Western Conference heavyweight, is thinking in adding a pricey free-agent goaltender such as Ryan Miller for a term during which the team may not even be realistically competitive.
The answer is actually pretty simple.
The Canucks believe that the addition of Miller offers the opportunity for the Canucks to quickly become a contender again while also giving younger players ample opportunity to grow together during what’s turned out to be a significant overhaul of the roster—starting with the departure of their last No. 1 netminder, Roberto Luongo, in March.
Miller inked a three-year, $18 million deal with the Canucks on Tuesday, via NHL.com correspondent Kevin Woodley, to bump Eddie Lack back into a backup role.
It’s the same reason the Canucks’ Pacific Division rival Calgary Flames brought in former Anaheim Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller with a two-year, $9 million deal Tuesday, via NHL.com.
The Flames got all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in 2004 with a team full of hard workers but not a great deal of talent.
The exception was in net. Miikka Kiprusoff sure covered a lot of the gaping holes on that roster and continued to do so for years until the Flames realized they’d have to make some major changes in front of the Finnish goalie to get the team back to a competitive level.
They’re entering year two of a major rebuild now and, like the Canucks, have decided to bring in an established veteran goalie to stabilize the back end and hope to alleviate some of the pain for the fans as the players in front of him find their way as a group.
“We’re going to do everything that we can do to make the team competitive, make the team into a playoff team this year,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning told reporters, via Metro Vancouver’s Cam Tucker, after the Miller signing Tuesday.
“I felt it was important to get a goalie with experience. Over the years, he’s played a lot of games. He gives us that experience we need in net.”
Experience doesn’t necessarily translate into elite performance.
Miller was brought to St. Louis at the trade deadline this season to help the Blues get over the playoff hump and into the later rounds. That didn’t happen.
In fact, many quickly panned the Miller signing on Tuesday as too much money and too long a term for a 33-year-old whose best years are behind him.
Canucks had to give Ryan Miller 3 yrs/ $6 million per because otherwise he'd have signed with ... uh ... a little help here. Anyone?— Cam Cole (@rcamcole) July 1, 2014
Not sure why the Canucks had to give Ryan Miller $6 million a year. Where else was he going? Term fine, money?.— Jim Matheson (@NHLbyMatty) July 1, 2014
Miller is four years removed from his Vezina Trophy campaign of 2010, when he won a career-high 41 games for the Buffalo Sabres, posting the best save percentage (.929) of his 11 NHL seasons and his lowest goals-against average (2.22) as well.
It was an incredible year. He helped the U.S. earn a silver medal at the Vancouver Games and was named Olympic tournament MVP for his efforts. His numbers haven’t been the same since then, at least in part due to a struggling Sabres team.
His surprising dip in save percentage down the stretch and into the playoffs with the defensively sound Blues was a shock to many. If his numbers continue to plummet, you’d probably assume the Canucks will regret the money they spent on the veteran.
But there are other factors to consider in the Canucks’ potential turnaround.
In five seasons prior to this past one, the Canucks qualified for the playoffs every year, getting into the second round in three of them and losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champion in three of those postseasons.
Will the Canucks get back to the playoffs?
Their worst showing in that span was a sweep against the San Jose Sharks two springs ago, a step backward that led to the firing of Alain Vigneault.
Last year they played under a new coach with a different approach, and the results were disastrous.
Many changes have already been made under Benning and new president of hockey operations Trevor Linden.
The team fired coach John Tortorella (bringing in Willie Desjardins) and shipped disgruntled center Ryan Kesler to the Anaheim Ducks, bringing in younger center Nick Bonino and defenseman Luca Sbisa in the deal. The Canucks traded for beefy Rangers grinder Derek Dorsett. They created more salary-cap room by jettisoning defenseman Jason Garrison and are actively shopping for more scoring on the wings, via Vancouver Sun writer Brad Ziemer, to add to the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, and their regular linemate, Alexandre Burrows.
There are plenty of holes recent draft picks Bo Horvat, Hunter Shinkaruk and Jake Virtanen are eventually expected to plug.
At least they don’t have to worry about a hole in the net for now as well.
Three years for Ryan Miller means we get a goalie controversy by what, Year 2?— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) July 1, 2014
With the only options in net prior to July 1 being NHL sophomore Eddie Lack or former Florida Panthers prospect Jacob Markstrom, Miller will almost certainly be an upgrade if he can return to his career averages—a .915 save percentage in both the playoffs and regular season.
He can provide the Canucks some breathing room on nights when things just aren’t completely clicking in front of him.
That could happen often, but the Canucks wouldn’t have brought Miller in if they believed it would.
All stats via NHL.com.
Steve Macfarlane has covered the NHL for more than a decade, including seven seasons following the Flames for the Calgary Sun. Follow him on Twitter @macfarlaneHKY.