(HockeySTL)-- In any loss, a goaltender is the easiest target to fire the blame at. In a playoff series, that blame is fired by a much larger mass. In this case, Ryan Miller seems to be on the receiving end of the berating cast out by a vast majority of Blues fans after Sunday’s first-round exit.
Miller was brought in by general manager Doug Armstrong in late February. He was labeled as the “final” piece to the Blues’ 48-year puzzle. Naturally, he was carrying the weight of an entire city on his back. That weight came crushing down on Sunday when Miller allowed five goals and lost his fourth game of the series. Teammates, however, don’t agree with the people placing the blame on Miller. They say it is unfair.
“He works his butt off,” said Blues captain David Backes. “He’s a consummate professional, a guy you love having on your team. Some of the plays, tips in fronts and stuff, it doesn’t matter who’s in net. He did more than his share and we need to be better in front of him. We are going to win or lose as a team.”
The 33-year old goaltender was not happy with his play this series, but perhaps expectations were too high. The common consensus is that Miller played good, but not great. And from day one, the Blues knew that they would need their goalie to be fantastic against the defending champions.
“I’m going to have to sit down and think about that,” Miller said. “(I) was not good enough, I guess.”
Miller stopped 147 of 166 shots in the series. He had a .897 save percentage, a 2.70 goals against average, and a 2-4 record as a result. He was sharp at times, and mediocre at others. He made some great saves, but was sub-par most of the time. He certainly wasn’t great.
“He played good for us,” said Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock. “I’m sure there are some goals that he’d like to have back, just like any goalie would. We win as a team, and we lose as a team.”
The playoff series against the Blackhawks was the first for Miller in four seasons. The Blues were hopeful that two-time Olympian could lead them through the playoffs, but the load was too much for him to carry. The team admitted that their poor play in front of the goaltender resulted in the losses, not Miller’s play.
“It definitely wasn’t ‘Millsie’,” said teammate Steve Ott. “He played extremely well every single night and kept us in this round. He’s an extreme professional. The stuff he had to do, he did. He played really well for us.”
However, no matter who teammates blame, or who takes credit for the first-round exit, the result does not sit well with management and makes for a murky future for all of the Blues’ 11 free agents. Perhaps no one more-so than Miller.
The Blues gave up five pieces to bring in Miller, along with Steve Ott. The pieces were of little value to St. Louis, but a five-for-two trade demands results, which the Blues didn’t get. And now, Miller is an unrestricted-free agent and the Blues have a decision to make.
The team can choose to let AHL goaltender of the year, Jake Allen, have the reigns for next season, or they can attempt to re-sign Miller. It is believed that the club will at least have conversations with Miller, but there is no indication or knowing how serious they will get at this point.
TSN reported in late March that the Blues had aggressively made their interest in bringing Miller back to St. Louis known to Miller's agent, Mike Liut. Perhaps the playoffs has changed their interest level, or perhaps they still want Miller in St. Louis long-term.
With the season ending on Sunday, it marks the end of Miller’s five-year, $31.25 million contract that the Blues inherited when they acquired the goalie. Miller was expected to demand as much, or more than his current deal allots for annually, which is $6.25 million. After his playoff performance, it’d be surprising to see him negotiate a deal worth that sum now. It also would surprise a lot of people to see Miller in St. Louis next season. However, the goaltender is certainly open to the idea of returning.
“Yeah (I would be),” said Miller. “We’ll have to see where we are at. We will have to see how they feel about me. I definitely like St. Louis. I like the guys, like the team. But we will see what they feel about the playoffs.”
It will likely come down to whether or not the Blues feel confident paying a 33-year old goalie a hefty figure, or whether they feel comfortable enough with Allen.
Heading into the playoffs, the Blues had not had serious negotiations with Miller. If they re-sign the goalie before the draft, they will be forced to forfeit a first-round pick to Buffalo as part of the terms of the trade. If they re-sign Miller after the draft, they will give up a second round selection. It makes sense for the Blues to take their time with the decision, and they certainly will do so.
And Miller will, too. The goaltender is expected to at least hold out until July 1 to see what interest he garners from other teams in free agency.
As for this offseason, Miller will be heading to his offseason home in California and pondering what is next.
“I don’t know,” said Miller. “I guess I take the days as they come now. Guess I’m free to go to my sister-in-law’s wedding.”
But before he knows it, it will be decision-making time for Miller and the Blues. With so many tangibles in play, the water is murky, and once again, the Blues head into the offseason with a decision to make in goal.