In a city where the hockey team's goaltending rivals real estate for favourite parlour talk, the signing of Ryan Miller on the first day of free agency sparked the predictable pulse of argument.
To detractors, the signing did not make sense: an aging goalie, 34, who appeared to have underperformed for St. Louis in the playoffs – never mind that Miller's dazzling play in net for the United States almost ruined the 2010 Winter Olympics for Canada. Jokes aside, Miller's greatness seemed faded, a memory.
In the mind of Jim Benning, there was never any doubt. The rookie Canucks general manager was once in charge of scouting in Buffalo, where Miller was drafted in the fifth round in 1999 and where the goalie subsequently made his name.
To Benning, the Canucks simply could not pin a season on Eddie Lack, who played 41 games last year as an NHL rookie. So Benning shelled out $18-million (U.S.) for three years of Miller's services.
As of early November, Benning's move looks good. One-sixth of the season is complete and Miller leads all goaltenders in wins, with nine, two ahead of his closest rival. Two-thirds of the wins have come against weak competition but the Canucks are 9-4, which as of Wednesday morning was second best in the entire league. "Isn't that great?" marvelled a news radio host early Wednesday morning.
Forget for a moment that 9-4 is only fractionally better than the 8-4-1 Canucks record after 13 games under John Tortorella a year ago.
But following the implosion of last winter, the Canucks' revival has sparked a wave of good feelings.All that will now be put to a test, however, with a tough three-game tour of California, starting Thursday in San Jose. It's considered an early defining moment.
Last year, the Canucks were punched up in California, one win in eight games, emblematic of their inability to keep up with the top three teams in the Pacific Division.
Miller, the man who has helped make the Canucks' early season success possible, remains relaxed. After the goaltending circus of the past several years, which culminated in the departures of both Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo, Miller is an ocean of calm.
In mid-October, after Miller and the Canucks bombed in a 6-3 loss against Dallas, he laughed at himself. He had ceded five goals and stopped just eight shots. On the fourth goal, by Jamie Benn, Miller deflected in the puck with his own stick after making a blocker save.
"I've done a lot of stupid things, but that's a new one," he told reporters. "I think we can classify this as not really my night."
Last week, when the Canucks duelled the then-NHL leading Montreal Canadiens, Miller bested Carey Price and Vancouver won 3-2 in overtime.
Afterward, Miller was asked if he had been interfered with on the first Canadiens goal, which came midway through the third period as Montreal mounted a comeback.
P.K. Subban had flipped the puck toward the net from the point – just as Brendan Gallagher skated out front from behind the goal line and was checked by Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa. Gallagher toppled onto Miller from behind, on the goaltender's blocker side, just as Alex Galchenyuk deflected Subban's shot, which squeaked past Miller's glove as the goaltender fell to the ice.
"It probably didn't matter, on the goal," Miller told reporters. "It got tipped high and went back left. If it went right … yeah, but the refs got it right. It's fine."
Miller went on to say he appreciates that referees and linesmen are conferring after such goals, to discuss the play and whether there was interference. "We're getting towards the right area here," said Miller. "As for tonight, the contact was a little bit late, and it didn't really play a part in the goal – that's a good goal."
Miller's nine wins, it must be noted, have been piled up against weak opponents – six of them against Washington, Colorado, Edmonton (three) and Carolina. But Miller has also played well, and won, against tough Montreal and St. Louis teams.
The benefit of playing lousy teams is the lighter workload.
Unlike in Buffalo, where Miller faced a nightly barrage, Vancouver's defence and its opponents' weak offences combined to allow only 253 shots on goal on Miller, 18th in the league. That's about 100 fewer than the number of pucks peppered at the likes of Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings and Montreal's Price.
Given all this, the test in California is significant for Miller and the Canucks.
Most of all, Miller was signed in Vancouver to provide stability, and he has. Asked about bouncing back from the Dallas loss, he said last week: "My job is to show that there is some calm back there, and make sure the guys feel that way in our zone."
Miller speaks evenly, like a third-party analyst. He is a veteran. He and his wife, Anger Management actress Noureen DeWulf, are expecting their first child, a boy, in March.
And here Miller is in Vancouver, on the rink where he produced his best-ever work, in February, 2010.
"You just have to push on," said Miller of games that don't go well. "That's really what it comes down to over the course of a season; who can get over the hiccups and bumps in the road quickest, and just forge on."