The best Buffalo Sabres goalie of all-time—Dominik Hasek—won six Vezina Trophies in his 16-year career, tied* with Montreal goalies Jacques Plante and Bill Durnan for the most solo-Vezinas in a career.
Hasek departed Buffalo-the only place he received the distinct honor of best goalie in the NHL—for Detroit in 2001, and was replaced with Martin Biron who played alongside Hasek for three seasons. But Biron was never the goalie of the future.
With the fifth Round, 138th overall selection in the 2002 NHL Draft the Sabres selected Ryan Miller, who set an NCAA record with 26 career shutouts in his three years at Michigan State. After spending three seasons with the then AHL affiliate Rochester Americans, playing part-time with the Sabres, Miller finally joined the Sabres as the headlining goalie.
In 2005-2006, Miller led the Sabres to the Eastern Conference Finals where they lost in seven games to the Carolina Hurricanes. That year, Miller ranked ninth amongst all goalies with .914 save percentage.
After the season the Sabres signed Miller to a three-year contract and they wouldn’t regret it. Miller has been one of the best goalies in the league the past four seasons receiving little to no support from his backups. In the past four seasons, Miller has played 246 games – 75 percent of the Sabres total games in that span. Hasek played 211 games in the same amount of time.
In his career up until this point, in six NHL seasons Miller’s .910 save percentage is just under Hasek’s .914 in the same number of seasons.
Last season Miller in his sixth season, played 59 games, went 34-18-0, had a .918 save percentage, and recorded five shutouts. The Sabres were third in the Northeast Division with 91 points and disqualified for the playoffs.
“Competitively, I want to keep pushing it up there so I'm an elite goalie," he told Buffalo News in preparing for the ’09-10 season. "There's no question people talk about my game at the top of the league and I want to keep pushing that.”
If Miller continues his play at his current rate he will surely record his first Vezina Trophy soon. His stats from last year are comparable to that of Hasek’s in his first year winning the Vezina.
That was ’93-94, his fourth season, and he played 58 games, went 30-20-6, had a save percentage of .930 and recorded seven shutouts. The Sabres that year were fourth in the Northeast Division with 95 points and lost the Conference Quarter-Finals to the New Jersey Devils.
True, it’s a new day, the game is played differently, and there is a whole bunch of talent out there with goalies like Martin Brodeur, Tim Thomas, Niklas Backstrom, Tomas Vokoun, and many more.
But there was a whole bunch of talent back then too with arguably the best goalie of all-time—Patrick Roy—along with Ed Belfour, Curtis Joseph and many more.
So what does Miller have to do to win such a prestigious goalie award?
Well, the Sabres going to the playoffs wouldn’t hurt. Since 1981, no goalie from a non-playoff team has won the award.
And they may just do that this year, with Miller, who is fully healed from the high ankle sprain that caused him to miss 13 games last season.
“We spent the majority of the summer putting that coordination back, getting the range of motion and balancing the strength between left and right leg,” he said. “It was an interesting process but it feels good."
In an organization whose team-building philosophy is to start at the net, controlling the crease means more than stopping pucks. It means being the man.
Playoffs or not, the 29-year old Miller is the face of the Sabres franchise in this new generation.
He consistently has the highest-selling jersey for a goalie his popularity ranks among the league's stars—Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Daniel Briere. He has numerous endorsement deals—Amp Energy, Saranac Beer—is a part of the Sirius Maxim radio show, and has an extensive web site.
He does work in the community supporting those affected by cancer with Steadfast Foundation, started by him and his father. He’s also part of the NHL’s Competition Committee.
“It’s Miller Time!” has become a popular cheer every time the 6’2” 175-pounder makes one of his crowd-stunning saves.
On July 18, 2008 it was really “Miller Time”, when he signed a five-year contract extension worth $31.25 million that will keep him in Buffalo through the 2013–14 season.
Will a Vezina validate the extension or is Miller well worth it with his accomplishments up-to-date?
* Before 1981, it was awarded to the goaltender(s) of the team allowing the fewest number of goals during the regular season.