The Ryan Miller era got off to a strong in St. Louis Sunday night, thanks to an unexpected outburst from the Blues’ offence – four unanswered goals in the third period to rally for a 4-2 victory over the Phoenix Coyotes.
Phoenix, bunched in with half-a-dozen other teams contending for the final two wild card spots in the Western Conference, needed the win more than the Blues, who are basically home and cooled for a playoff spot and in a position to win the Central Division.
But it was a nice ’welcome to town’ moment for Miller, who has three 2014 Olympic teammates – David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Kevin Shattenkirk – to help smooth the transition. There will be other times when the Blues will need him to bail them out. It was good for the collective St. Louis psyche that they could get their new starter a W in his first outing.
Goalie trades at or just before the trading deadline are not all that common, but the Miller deal calls to mind one from eight years ago, when the Edmonton Oilers landed Dwayne Roloson from the Minnesota Wild for a first-round pick. Roloson solidified their goaltending situation and the next thing you knew, they were playing in the Stanley Cup final against the Carolina Hurricanes.
The 2006 playoffs make for an interesting comparative because that was also the last time the NHL stopped play for an Olympics in Europe, which is a far different experience than an Olympics in Vancouver or Salt Lake City, with its minimal travel and didn’t nearly put the same physical demands on that players as a trip to and from Sochi, Russia did.
The resulting playoffs in 2006 were topsy-turvy – all four top seeds in the Western Conference lost in the opening round – and that history is going to provide courage for any NHL teams that slip into the playoffs at the 11th hour, especially those whose players weren’t burned out at the Olympics.
Miller is in a special category. He went to Sochi and played sparingly behind starter Jonathan Quick, so there was some rest for the rigors of a full NHL schedule, although he is like a lot of NHLers in the first week back – dealing with the effects of jet lag.
But Miller does look as if he can be a difference-maker on a St. Louis team that will protect him far better than the Buffalo Sabres, in their current incarnation, can. It takes a certain amount of discipline to be a good, good-team goalie (after a couple of years of playing on an erratic Sabres’ team) but Miller seems to have the right mindset to adjust. He was the MVP of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics; even the Americans lost the gold-medal game to Canada, and seems like the perfect fit with a Blues’ team that will make his life easier.
Miller’s departure could have a domino effect on the goalie market leading into the playoffs. Two of St. Louis’s Central Division rivals – the Wild and the Nashville Predators – appear on different courses, thanks to long-term health problems for their starters. Minnesota hasn’t seen Josh Harding since before Christmas, as he adjusts to new medication for his MS, and it doesn’t appear as if a return is in the cards.
Minnesota appears to be a logical landing place for Jaroslav Halak, if only as insurance for Darcy Kuemper, who has become the de facto starter there because of Niklas Backstrom’s groin problems. But Halak isn’t the only goalie on the market. A couple of netminders with reputations for quirkiness on teams that have no playoff chances – Florida, with Tim Thomas and Edmonton with Ilya Bryzgalov – could be on the move. Carolina’s post-Olympic freefall means someone – perhaps Cam Ward but also Anton Khudobin – might be up for grabs as well.
It is hard to imagine the New Jersey Devils ever moving Martin Brodeur, even if Cory Schneider has become the de facto No. 1 there, but Daniel Alfredsson left Ottawa after all those years, so nothing is impossible. As a short-term fix on a good defensive team, Brodeur could be a valuable addition. For some teams, lacking in postseason experience, Brodeur’s playoff pedigree and stature in the game might count for as much as his ability to stop the puck.
For any team looking beyond this season, Anaheim’s surplus in net means that Viktor Fasth, signed for one more year at $2.9-million, but injured for a lot of this year, could be an option as well. Fasth had a fabulous start for the Ducks last season – remember all those Quick and Fasth puns whenever Los Angeles and Anaheim met – and he could be a decent player if given the opportunity to start. But Anaheim has two of the best young goaltending prospects in the NHL – Frederik Andersen and John Gibson – in the pipeline, which might make Fasth expendable. And the guy doing the teaching down in Anaheim these days is none other than Roloson, who has a glut of talent to work with.
THE RYAN KESLER WATCH: Way back in the day, the Philadelphia Flyers thought enough of Ryan Kesler’s upside that they signed him to an offer sheet – a rare provocative move in the NHL – in the hopes of poaching him from the Vancouver Canucks long before he ever broke through as a front-line NHL player. So Philadelphia’s interest in Kesler is long-standing and the question that the Flyers need to ask internally is, would they give up one of their two talented kids, either Brayden Schenn or Sean Couturier, as the centrepiece of a possible deal with the Canucks? Sure, Detroit is interested too, and the Kesler-Michigan connection makes it a plausible scenario, but the Flyers have the better assets to offer. Vancouver would likely insist on Schenn and Philadelphia would likely say no – too much upside there. But for Couturier, maybe that’s the bones of a possible deal. From Philly’s perspective, Kesler as a No. 2, with Claude Giroux, Schenn and Vinnie Lecavalier as your other options down the middle makes for an impressive group (although Lecavalier has played a lot of wing for the Flyers this season). The Flyers took a lot of criticism for flipping Mike Richards and Jeff Carter for Schenn and a pick that turned out to be Couturier (they also landed Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds in those deals). Richards has had a tough time of it in L.A. this season; to get Kesler’s experience might help mitigate some of that loss experience, and gird them for a run in this year’s playoffs.
THIS AND THAT: With John Tavares on the shelf for the rest of the season, the Islanders will try to maximize their return on two key assets – Thomas Vanek, who will score goals for someone, and also defenceman Andrew MacDonald, who has burned up a lot of important minutes for them this season and, like Vanek, is also set to become an unrestricted free agent. McDonald would be a good fit in Boston which, in the absence of Dennis Seidenberg, could use one more warm experienced body on the blueline. If the prices get too crazy on MacDonald, Edmonton’s Nick Schultz could be a cheaper, depth option ... The Islanders had 13 picks in the 2006 draft; MacDonald was their 10th selection, 160th overall; the only other player they took that year playing regularly in the NHL is Kyle Okposo, who went seventh overall, although Jesse Joensuu has seen some limited playing time with the Oilers this year ... After the L.A. Kings kicked the tires on Sam Gagner in Edmonton, it appears as if they will be standing pat this year, and came out of the break deciding to play some of their youngsters more – Tyler Toffoli, Linden Vey, Tanner Pearson, all of whom were in the lineup Saturday at the expense of Jordan Nolan and Matt Frattin. Most of the inquiries coming their way in L.A. involved their prospects. The Kings figured they better get some answers on them soon. They are currently on a four-game win streak, heading into Monday’s date with the Montreal Canadiens, although you’ d have to think they, like a lot of teams, will make calls on Vanek and Matt Moulson at the 11th hour to see if the asking prices have dropped.
THE SABRES SOAP OPERA: It makes sense for the Sabres to retain coach Ted Nolan, even after Pat LaFontaine’s abrupt departure as the president of hockey operations Saturday. Nolan is the quintessential players’ coach – Latvia’s players will tell you all about that – and since Buffalo is in the early stages of a massive rebuild, someone with Nolan’s attitude and perspective could be the perfect fit in keeping morale up, as the losing continues. Bob Hartley has done an effective job, under similar trying circumstances, keeping life in Calgary from being too grim. The Flames figure to be active at the deadline, with Mike Cammalleri the primary target, although the asking price for rentals of all descriptions is stratospheric. Teams are insisting on getting first-rounders in return, partly because of the perception that the 2014 draft isn’t great, and most teams with a long-term plan, such as the Sabres, are tentatively asking for 2015 picks because there’ll be 14 lottery chances for Connor McDavid and so you may as well load up on as many tickets as you can. It was instructive probably that Florida dealt two picks – one in 2014 and one in 2016 – to land Brandon Pirri from the Chicago Blackhawks Sunday. Nobody wants to give up 2015 choices, which is why the package that new Sabres’ GM Tim Murray extracted from St. Louis is considered a quality haul. Not only did he get a 2015 first-rounder, he’ll reportedly get one in 2014 too if the Blues either re-sign Miller or get to the conference final. And he has the option of flipping Halak and Chris Stewart, two viable NHLers, for additional assets. Compared to what Calgary got for, say, Jarome Iginla and Jay Bouwmeester last year – first-rounders yes, but marginal prospects otherwise – it’s an impressive package ... Last year, Pittsburgh made all those moves (Iginla, Brendan Morrow, Jussi Jokinen) with a view to winning right away and it didn’t pay off. Jokinen was the least heralded addition, but the only one to survive with the Penguins into this year and he’s been an effective player for them. With Pascal Dupuis gone for the year, and uncertainty about Beau Bennett, soon-to-be-unrestricted free agent Ales Hemsky looks like a good fit there. With his skill level, Hemsky might be the best buy at the trading deadline, a player who could be rejuvenated by a move and who, for anyone will really long memories, was the key offensive component in that Edmonton-over-Detroit upset eight years ago. Wonder if anyone with the Red Wings remembers how that went? ... Martin Erat cost the Washington Capitals the rights to Filip Forsberg in the most unusual transaction at last year’s deadline. The return for Erat will be considerably less this year ... Moving David Legwand for Nashville isn’t quite the same as New Jersey moving Brodeur, but Legwand has played every one of his 15 NHL seasons with the Predators and is a pending unrestricted free agent.
AND FINALLY: One more nod to Jaromir Jagr who – if such a thing is possible – quietly scored his 700th career goal Saturday night in the New Jersey Devils win over the New York Islanders, becoming just the seventh player in history to reach that milestone. Jagr is currently eight goals behind No. 6 – Mike Gartner. His assist in the same game gave him 1,040 for his career, tied with Marcel Dionne for ninth on the all-time assists lead, with Gordie Howe (1049) in his sights. If Jagr plays beyond this year, which seems extremely likely given his wish to play in the Olympics four years from now, he could potentially reel in Phil Esposito (717) and Dionne (731) on the all-time goal-scoring list. Remarkable.