Why Ryan Miller Needs to Be the Back-up More Often

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. 

  • Great article Drancer. Hopefully it finally shuts up those people who are like “oh my god it’s not Miller its the defines etc etc. They haven’t been great lately,, but we knew that sans Hamhuis – Millers been terrible.

  • I think there’s a problem with your analysis of the gif. On the left I see Nyquist scoring on present day Luongo with Willie Mitchell making a nice cameo, while on the right I see Lu flashing the leather on Datsyuk. So if you’re trying to make any conclusions from that gif, Melanson has had a negative effect on Luongo. Not that I would read much into one play.

  • Brent

    I’m all for Lack getting more starts. It is important to have both guys going down the stretch. There’s a couple of points you are missing though. Lack finished last year with a .921 even strength save percentage which was below Miller’s .923 playing behind a much better defensive corps than Miller.

    Lack currently sits 49th overall in even strength save percentage and Miller 57th. That would suggest something besides bad goaltending is happening…like a D-corps that isn’t performing the way it should.

    I’d like to know the amount of own goals we’ve scored this year. Not just the ones shot in, but ones tipped in by our own players caught in-between shot blocks or just flailing a stick or part of the body to cover for poor positioning. Easy to blame the goalie on those, but not many are easily stoppable. You’ll have to take my word for it as one who tried many times to do so.

    Blaming Miller or Lack’s save percentage gives our D and Forward’s defensive zone coverage a free pass. Nothing I’ve seen over the last few weeks warrants accolades for our defensive zone play. That’s team, although the goalie is a reflection of that.

    Another reason I liked the signing and something that is overlooked with developing young goaltenders is mentorship. Having somebody to bring the benefit of experience alongside Eddie will help him learn what it takes to be leaned upon as a starter. Miller has been through the battles while Lack hasn’t quite faced the grind with success. Experience helps for when the torch gets passed.

  • RandomScrub

    I would like to have another 10 game sample – essentially the half way point of the season – before I commit to my admittedly pessimistic opinion on Miller.

    During this time I would like to see Miller steal at least one game. I mean SJ earlier this season steal – an individual effort to ensure a win they shouldn’t have, not just a game he posts a shut out during a strong team effort or some late game heroics to redeem a game that wasn’t played for the full 60 mins.

    I can guarantee you the defense in its current rendition will give him an opportunity in the next 10 games. Fans were willing to dismiss some poor outings (of course exasperated by the D) in some of the losses and point to the game against SJ as a reason for patience.

    That game is starting to look farther and farther in the rear view mirror. Simply put, a goalie with Miller’s contract is a goalie that should steal you more than one game at the half way point of the season. It’s just not reasonable to have this discussion without the context of his contract, regardless of apprehensions of more goalie drama.

  • RandomScrub

    I have thought since the beginning if the long road trip Lack should get more of a shot in goal.

    Willie is loyal, but Miller is 34, Benning says always how competitive Miller is, well then put Lack in more and make Miller prove it. Goalies are like QBs, there is only one playing…. If you win, you get credit, if you lose you get booed! The only category Miller has going for him is win totals. The team has hit a lull, let’s not make it a swoon, because soon enough it will turn into a skid….,and no one wants that.

    We have two good goalies, competition is a good thing.

      • Brent

        “Wait, isn’t a swoon worse than a skid? Can someone show me a periodic table of underperformance?”

        Definitely a swoon is better than a skid. Swoon sounds almost romantic, e.g.. Scarlet swooning in Gone with the Wind. Where as skid has much more negative connotation. Skid row, skid marks on your underwear. Really they are not even close.

  • Brent

    When Melanson was “breaking down and building up” Markstrom in his style, Tortorella didn’t see fit to have him start a game until we were mathematically eliminated. And this season we camouflaged him during the preseason to make sure no one could see his improvements before he passed through waivers to see if the changes took hold. But with Miller we’re trying the same experiment in the NHL while paying him $6million, is that the story?

    I don’t have anything against Miller in general, but if David Booth wasn’t worth $4 million for what he brought to the table it’s hard to see what Miller’s doing for his $6 million. The premise of this blog post is right, though I don’t think it goes far enough. I think Lack should — if he looks good in the next outing — get to run with it for a little while. Let’s not pretend there isn’t a goalie controversy just because it hasn’t been botched a la Gillis so far. We would be in far better shape right now with even middling goaltending, regardless of the fact that the defense has looked exceptionally porous in recent games.

  • RandomScrub

    @RandomScrub

    Good point. Didn’t notice the ref and couldn’t see the puck go in. Perhaps I was still fixated on the left/right mix up in the article.

    I stand by that it doesn’t really show much. Lu is slightly deeper in the left clip, but it doesn’t really showcase the difference between the styles or the pros and cons.

    • Brent

      Who would you have went with?

      We also still have cap space to spend at the moment.

      It’s time to spread the load out a little for sure, but I’d rather see somebody promoted from within on Defence to see what we’ve got on the farm. That’s still a very affordable option. I’d hope we learned from last year overplaying players and having them burn-out down the stretch.

      • Brent

        1. Hiller at 4.5M was a better deal then and is a better deal now. That’s 1.5M cheaper, and we currently have just over 2.5M in space. Hmmmm… what excellent former Canucks defenseman signed for 4M this past summer?

        Yeah I’d have signed Ehrhoff.

        2. Who would you promote? The best option is Sanguinetti if he’s healthy, and he’s not much of an improvement over Weber, realistically.

          • Brent

            I don’t get the constant fantasy that somehow Ehrhoff was going to come back — if you had the travel schedule of the east plus the chance to play with Malkin and Crosby, even if you’re not top-pairing on the PP or regularly, you’d take it I think, even if money wasn’t an issue.

            The problems with the Miller contract, as the article mentions, are bad enough down the road, but it’s surprising to see him as leaky as he’s been so far.

            Luongo let in five goals in the shootout last night! Oh wait, you mean in 20 attempts? Yeah, he’s all washed up, right? Glad to see that he’s having some success this year, he deserves it after some of the crap he put up with here.

        • Brent

          I’m still not sold on Hiller. There’s a reason why Anaheim walked away from him at 4.5 mil. He did miss that entire year with vertigo.

          Ehrhoff coming back here? Not likely, unless he wanted to give Aquilini a chance to pull the rug on he and his agent again.

          If Corrado isn’t ready, and clearly that’s the coaches opinion. Then Sanguinetti is the next best option with NHL experience. I think it’s worth a try. In my mind, it’s not hard to improve on Weber right now. Same with Sbisa and Bieksa.

          If it’s OK to give Lack more games to put pressure on Miller, then it should be equally OK to bring somebody in to take some minutes from some of our underperforming D-corps and make them earn their minutes back….Right?

      • Brent

        In theory, the Canucks could have went with Lack/Markstrom and Garrison instead of say Miller/Lack and Weber.

        While it’s not entirely surprising to see Garrison putting up a good year back in the Eastern Conference, I think it was reasonable for a team with playoff aspirations to hope Stanton continued to grow from last year and Miller would at least stabilize the goaltending position.

        What was delusional, though, was handing $18 million to a 34 year old average starting goalie.

        That’s around what Luongo should get on the open market if he had been bought out.

        And Miller is nowhere near the goalie Luongo is…

        • Brent

          Would you have been comfortable going into the season with that combo (Lack/Markstrom/Garrison)? Be honest.

          You’re right about Lu, but it was time for him to move on in his mind. There was no changing it. I’d have rather had somebody else swing that deal though, especially if we had a lame duck GM when it happened. Bottom line, he wanted out no matter what and we needed a vet to replace him if we’re doing things right with our goalies. (Schneider still gives Lu credit for helping him develop.)

          18 mil is the going rate for 3 years on a veteran goalie. We paid for shortness of term. With Lu we gave term for less pay. You may not like his contract, but that’s what it took for 3 years of Miller given the league wide climate that Lu’s contract helped create.

          I’m still willing to wait until much later in the season to pass judgement on the entire Miller deal. The way the league is going it still seems like the going rate to me. If he winds up earning his pay and outplaying Lu in the future, then everybody’s happy. If not, well it’s only a couple of years or a deadline deal from being a nice stopgap while we figure out what we have with Lack/Markstrom/Eriksson.

          • Brent

            I never thought Garrison made sense here.

            Without hindsight, I would have kept Mitchell instead of trading for Ballard and kept Salo instead of signing Garrison.

            These two would have been perfect transitional players that could be phased into a 3rd pairing role (with appropriate cap hits) as guys like Tanev took over.

            By the same token, I’m not sure what the point of acquiring guys like Sundin, Demitra, Samuelsson, Malhotra & Torres was as opposed to keeping Naslund, Morrison, Grabner, Raymond, Pyatt etc…

            I would have been okay with Lack/Markstrom insofar as I was okay with the possibility of #tanknation.

            But that doesn’t look like an option with this ownership group.

            While I don’t necessarily disagree that Miller’s cap hit is the going rate for goalies in their free agent years, why join into the insanity?

            10-15 goalies are on ugly contracts (including Miller & Luongo).

            The simplest thing for the organization to have done would have been to not make Luongo captain and have traded Schneider to improve the team in front of Luongo YEARS ago when the team was a legit contender.

            Then again, the previous regime rarely took the simpler route.

            Speaking of which, let me know if you need another copy of one ply Ice Storm for the holidays…

  • Brent

    Looking at *who* they’ve started against is interesting too. I think Lack has, on average, got more difficult opponents. Skewed by Miller taking all four EDM starts so far but even so.

  • Brent

    I agree with the article.

    It’s still only December but the way the Western Conference is shaping up, the Nucks can’t have an extended slide in goaltending. If Miller’s not getting it done in the short term, if Lack is hot gotta go with him.

  • Brent

    Call up Markstrom and deploy the following rotation until a starter emerges:

    Game 1: Miller (Starter), Lack/Markstrom (Backup)
    Game 2: Lack (Starter), Miller/Markstrom (Backup)
    Game 3: Markstrom (Starter), Lack/Miller (Backup)

    Rinse and repeat until a starter emerges.

    Markstrom may very well be a better option than Lack and a better option than the current version of Miller.

    He has earned a chance to join the lower mainland three ring circus…