The next Canucks goalie controversy is already brewing

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Photo Credit: Marc DesRosiers/USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Miller’s a marked man.

The Vancouver Canucks No. 1 netminder started the new season in fine form, but an 0-3-1 record in his last four games, combined with a brutal .867 save percentage during that span and plenty of finger-pointing along the way, means that Miller is once again about to feel the wrath of a fickle Canucks fanbase that loves to support its backup goalies.

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Miller had no place to hide when he surrendered a weak goal to rookie Chris Wideman with 1:55 left in the third period on Thursday—a goal that ultimately turned out to be the game-winner for the Ottawa Senators.

That note of contrition may be coming a little too late.

I understood why Jim Benning signed Miller to a three-year, $18 million contract when he took over as the Canucks general manager two summers ago. Miller boosted Benning’s own career prospects when he went from being a fifth-round draft choice by the Buffalo Sabres in 1999—when Benning was Buffalo’s director of amateur scouting—to an NHL starter by 2005-06 and a Vezina Trophy winner in 2009-10.

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Benning added an important foundation piece to the Canucks roster when he brought in a solid veteran netminder after Roberto Luongo was shipped out of town. He also paid back a player who had helped him establish his own professional reputation as a scout with a keen eye for undiscovered talent.

For those same reasons, Miller was not a trade chip Benning was willing to play last summer, when he moved Eddie Lack to Carolina in order to make room for Jacob Markstrom on the Canucks’ roster.

During Miller’s first year in Vancouver, he toiled in the shadow of Lack’s fan-favourite persona. Lack’s an affable character who had earned his props with the fanbase by maintaining his sunny disposition during trying times under coach John Tortorella the season before, all while managing a cheerful Twitter account that made him appear accessible and human. 

Last season, I often wondered how Miller felt listening to the “Eddie! Eddie!” chants as he sat on the bench at Rogers Arena when Lack played, or when the Canucks’ game-presentation team rolled out the “Back to Lack” AC/DC tribute song for a big play by the backup—all while Miller had no signature cheer of his own. Once in awhile during his first year, Miller would make a big save and the crowd would sound like they were on the verge of chanting “Looooou!” But then the fans would remember that Luongo was long gone—and no one, including the team, had bothered to come up with a way to cheer the team’s latest starter when he made a big play.

Nothing took hold. Even when he started well this season, fans just clap politely when Ryan Miller makes a big save at Rogers Arena. They may as well have been at the symphony.

After Lack was out of the picture, Miller had every opportunity to make himself No. 1 in fans’ hearts, especially when his new backup Jacob Markstrom strained his hamstring right before the regular season began.

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At first, it looked like the starter would make the most of his chance. Miller played Vancouver’s first 10 games of the season, giving up just 22 goals as the Canucks built an solid 4-2-4 record and went undefeated on the road.

But November has not been so kind. Miller has seen less than 30 shots in each of his last four starts, but has given up three goals or more in each contest and hasn’t been able to lock down a win.

Though Miller is generally well-respected for his long tenure with the Sabres in Buffalo, his old fans were quick to throw daggers when he gave up the winning goal to Rasmus Ristolainen with 16.6 seconds remaining in regulation time last Saturday, giving Buffalo the 4-3 win.

For Canucks supporters, their most vivid memory of Miller is from long before he signed in Vancouver. It occurred in the midst of his Vezina-winning season when he surrendered Sidney Crosby’s “Golden Goal” in Vancouver at the 2010 Olympics.

The Sabres earned a franchise-best 113 points with Miller in net in 2006-07 and advanced to the Eastern Conference Final twice during his tenure in Buffalo, but that’s as far as he could lead them. There’s really no defining moment in Miller’s career to this point where it can be said that he was a big-game goalie.

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Miller’s current situation is now complicated by the return of a healthy Jacob Markstrom—a 6’6″ behemoth whose agility and athleticism is just as impressive as his imposing natural size in the net. His run to the Calder Cup Final with the Utica Comets in the AHL last season wasn’t half bad, either, though he’s yet to establish himself as a bona fide NHL caliber netminder.

Markstrom gave up three goals in his first game for the Canucks this season, but with the score tied 2-2 against the Columbus Blue Jackets early in the third period on Tuesday, he made a game-changing save on Nick Foligno that set up the Canucks for the only win of their road trip so far.

Miller remained sure of himself after his loss to Buffalo last Saturday, calling out his teammates—with reason—for their frequent third-period breakdowns this season.

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He also deftly flipped the story back onto TSN analyst Ray Ferraro when his name came up earlier in the week as a goalie who benefits from oversized equipment:

After his loss in Ottawa and Markstrom’s win in Columbus—where the Canucks came back from a 3-2 third-period deficit to earn the win—Miller may be out of excuses and out of places to hide.

“I’m going out to try my best every night,” Miller told Mark Spector of Sportsnet earlier this week. “I’m not going to be perfect; I’m not going to always come through, every single time. But I’m going to compete, and when I compete, things will happen. I just want them to respect that about me, and whatever happens after that, they can talk about it, and I’m not going to worry about it.”

Will Miller be able to keep that cool demeanour if his starter’s job starts to slip through his fingers?

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  • Steampuck

    Moving forward, if Markstrom has turned a corner (probably a bit early to say) we do have a goalie controversy. For the money and cap space involved, Miller remains Benning’s worst signing. Last year, Miller played too much and it showed as the season went on. His injury showed that Lack could more than hold his own with regular minutes, which only magnified the $6 million anchor sitting in the sick bay. The lesson from last year was that Miller needed to be spotted by his backup more frequently. Unfortunately, Markstrom’s injury to start the year threw a spanner in those works. Miller started very well, but has slowed. Between now and January, Markstrom should be getting almost every other game in order to ensure that Miller can go the distance this year.

    I’m still bitter we lost Lack. The discount associated with running with the two younger Swedes seems worthwhile in bringing a bit of cap space and options to the team.

    Miller does the little things exceptionally well. He’s good at handling the puck and settling it down for defensemen. He seems a good veteran presence. Etc. But whether it’s age or fatigue, he seems less sure at stopping pucks. Especially at $6 million a year. Which seems kind of important.

  • Larionov18

    Markstrom got injured. Miller played too many consecutive games without enough rest and his play, unsurprisingly, began to fall off.

    Now Markstrom is back, Miller can get proper rest and his play will likely improve as a result.

    Back in my day we used to call an argument like the one in the article above, “making a mountain out of a molehill.”

    • Larionov18

      > Now Markstrom is back, Miller can get proper rest and his play will likely improve as a result.

      Only if they play Markstrom. Why the hell was Miller starting again against T.O?

  • Charlie Allnut

    On an unrelated note, concerning recent events at Vancouver Provincial Court…

    This now in from our chief scouting correspondent, Charlie Allnut:

    Clayton Stoner of the Anaheim Ducks has been credited with one hit in his battle with Cheeky, a 5 year old veteran of the B.C. coastal Grizzlies.

    Cheeky was no match for Stoner’s rifle shot, although he is not known as the Ducks’ best sniper.

    As a Grizzly that was somewhat acclimated to humans, Cheeky made for an easy target for the low-brow Stoner, quite like the contest between Cecil the Lion and the gonad-challenged dentist who shot him.

    This outraged the Grizzlies, especially when they learned about Stoner’s trophy photo, grinning like the late Jihadi John over Cheeky’s severed head.

    The hockey Gods are said to be disgusted.

    An unidentified (Pacific coast misty mountain spirit) has confirmed that in retaliation for the illegal hit, though not called as a penalty until recently, a curse has been placed on the Ducks franchise. The main reason being the cowardly blind sided hit.

    A request for an interview with the spirit was unanswered, although unconfirmed reports are circulating that the team has been experiencing nightmares.

    Such curses have been known to hinder a team for many decades.

    Charlie Allnut.

  • wojohowitz

    I think Carol has it slightly backwards in that Benning wanted a veteran presence more than repaying an old favour and the situation in Calgary and Edmonton bear him out. Both those teams have goalie problems and would love to have Miller playing for them if only for the veteran presence to steady the troops.

  • Ruprecht

    Carol writes good articles.

    Benning signed Miller to have a veteran presence. Ryan is a good goalie, but he’s wearing down and Markstrom needs to step in and do his part. Goalies have a thankless job, what have you done for me lately, but at $6 Million expectations are high. Every time I see Miller I wonder if something is not right with him. He looks pale and…

    Lets hope Markstrom is the right choice to lead us into the future.

  • Larionov18

    It sure doesn’t take much to start the controversy topic here in Van city. Sadly. These issues happen on most NHL teams. Miller is struggling right now but is the #1. Markstrom may spell him for a bit if he keeps struggling but make no mistake, Miller is the starter.

  • Larionov18

    Markstrom finally wins an NHL game and there’s immediately a controversy???

    I agree there’s a problem with the Canucks, but it isn’t with the club’s goaltending. It’s with a Chicken Little media that writes click bait headlines.

    Sending some writers down to Utica or Kalamazoo until they learn their craft might be helpful.

  • Larionov18

    Or everyone can just accept the plan of Miller mentoring Markstrom for the next two years until Markstrom takes over the 1st spot. I see Markstrom playing 30 games this year (and even more next year)…hopefully that gives Miller more recovery time.