The writers at this site savaged Vancouver’s new management team when – on July 1, 2014 – freshly minted Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning plunged head first into the free agent market to hand out a three-year, $18-million contract to aging unrestricted free agent goaltender Ryan Miller.
I didn’t hate the deal quite so much at the time. Having watched Eddie Lack break down towards the tail end of last season, I didn’t think it was wise for the club to to dole him out a workhorse starter’s workload. Looking over Jakob Markstrom’s numbers over the past few seasons at the NHL-level, meanwhile, I didn’t think he was a particularly good bet to credibly spell Lack for 30-35 NHL games.
But Ryan Miller is struggling. Plain and simple, he’s struggling to the extreme. Let’s take a closer look on the other side of the jump.
Bringing in an average starting caliber goaltender made sense to me over the summer. Yeah, Ryan Miller’s deal would probably start to smell putrid in the last season of the pact, but in year one I thought that Vancouver had improved their goaltending. Miller was, and still is, a better bet than Lack to provide Vancouver with average goaltending over the balance of this campaign in my view.
Now let’s get real: so long as you’re not stuck in the mid-oughts and committed to arguing in favour of Chris Osgood’s Hockey Hall of Fame candidacy, you shouldn’t be counting goalie wins. Wins and losses are a team stat. Goalies compile wins and losses as a result of factors – like, say, “goals for”, which is something that a goaltender has absolutely zero impact on. What a goalie controls is save percentage, and especially even-strength save percentage, two metrics which suggest that Miller has been way, way below average this season.
In terms of raw save percentage numbers, Miller has stopped just a hair more than 90 percent of all shots faced this season, a number that isn’t just below average – it’s borderline cataclysmic. There are only three regular starting netminders – i.e. goaltenders who have started at least 15 games – with a lower save percentage than Miller’s .903: Edmonton’s Ben Scrivens, Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov, Arizona’s Mike Smith. Go check out where the Oilers, Coyotes and Avalanche sit in the standings. This isn’t a coincidence.
The numbers are even worse at even-strength. 31 NHL goaltenders have logged over 650 minutes at even-strength this season, with only the Calgary Flames utilizing an equal enough split to include two goalies (both Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo) in this class. Of those 31 regular starters, Miller ranks 30th in even-strength save percentage, ahead of only Smith.
Largely as a result of Miller’s issues, Vancouver is 28th in the league in team even-strength save percentage this season. Vancouver is the only team currently in the bottom-five in this category that is holding down a playoff spot at the moment.
Now, there’s some necessary context that we should unpack before going any further. The first is regression, and the second is technical and stylistic. As Miller has aged, he’s settled into a mean even-strength save percentage that is modestly below average. Over the last two years he’s been the 21st best starter by even-strength save percentage (sandwiched, uninspiringly, between Marc-Andre Fleury and Steve Mason).
Unless Miller has really fallen off a cliff age-wise – and watching him continue to move rather quickly about his crease that doesn’t appear to be the case – we can reasonably expect his true talent even-strength save percentage to be somewhere in the neighbourhood of .920 to .923. That’s not a great number, but it’s not going to sink Vancouver’s season.
As much as, yes, he’s struggled enormously, Miller has also probably been unlucky in the early going. In all likelihood, his save percentage will regress in a positive direction over the balance of the season.
The other thing to note is that Miller, a notably aggressive goalie who plays a retro-style and lives outside the blue, has been adjusting his style to Rollie Melanson’s tried, tested, and true preferences. Those adjustments take time, and perhaps serve to explain at least a portion of Miller’s early season issues.
On a side note, check out this side-by-side .gif of Pavel Datsyuk and the heir apparent Gustav Nyquist beating Roberto Luongo with the exact same backhand shot seven years apart. On the left is how Luongo played prior to his time as Melanson’s padawan, and on the right is how he plays now. That’s a pretty nice, if simplistic, encapsulation of the Melanson-effect as I understand it.
So what should Vancouver do as Miller figures out his technical issues and waits for good fortune – or at least better fortune – to smile upon him? Well cutting down on the club’s habit of allowing odd-man rushes against by the handful, an issue which also sunk the club last season, would be a good start. It would also be helpful if the team could continue to score three goals per game.
Finally, and most obviously, the club should probably consider giving Lack a more equal share of starts as Miller figures out his game. Lack has started three of Vancouver’s last 14 games, a true backup’s workload, even though Miller has been woeful. Lack’s continued *ahem* lack of playing time stands in stark contrast with most of the other teams that are receiving goaltending of poor quality this season, all of whom have begun to ride their backups a bit more frequently.
In Minnesota, Niklas Backstrom has now started six of the Wild’s past 14, in Edmonton, Viktor Fasth has started six of Oilers’ past 14, and in Arizona, Devan Dubnyk has started six of the Coyotes’ past 14 as well.
So for those of you who’d argue that Miller isn’t struggling, or would prefer to put a softer euphemism on it like “inconsistent”, know that his level of performance has caused well paid goaltenders elsewhere to lose their workhorse privileges in favour of Devan Dubnyk.
As for the Canucks, perhaps it makes sense to let Miller play through his issues. He’s been bad enough though that, in my estimation, Willie Desjardins should strongly consider a more equal split between Lack and Miller for the time being.