Vancouver Canucks: The Case For Signing Ryan Miller

Apr 6, 2017; Glendale, AZ, USA; Vancouver Canucks goalie Ryan Miller (30) defends during the second period against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 6, 2017; Glendale, AZ, USA; Vancouver Canucks goalie Ryan Miller (30) defends during the second period against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports /

There are legitimate reasons to worry about Jim Benning’s commitment and capacity to manage the Vancouver Canucks through a rebuild. That he wants to re-sign Ryan Miller is not one of those reasons.

Though recent reports suggest that there are no talks between Ryan Miller and the Vancouver Canucks, Jim Benning did express his intention to bring Miller back a few weeks ago, and there is no reason to believe this has changed.

Alex Hoegler, my colleague at The Canuck Way, recently argued that it is time to move on from Miller. He makes a fair case. Jacob Markstrom was supposed to have taken over the top job by now, and Thatcher Demko is waiting in the wings as the future starter. With those two pieces in place, why spend money on a veteran goaltender nearing retirement during a rebuild?

I’d like to answer that question.

Goaltending Still Matters

The Vancouver Canucks are weak. They’re going to be weak for a while yet. For young players, learning to deal with adversity is important, but losing badly every night can be demoralizing. Good goaltending will keep the Canucks in games, even they ultimately lose most of those games, and this is valuable.

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Of the emerging young core of the team, Bo Horvat has played six NHL playoff games, Sven Baertschi four, Markus Granlund three. Brock Boeser, Nikolay Goldobin, Troy Stetcher, Ben Hutton, Reid Boucher, and Jake Virtanen have never been to the NHL playoffs and Olli Juolevi, Jonathan Dahlen and the rest of the prospect pool have yet to play in the NHL at all. It will likely be several seasons before this changes.

In the meantime, these young players need to develop their capacity to play under pressure, in high-stakes situations, and to learn how to deal with the increased anxiety, hype, and adrenaline of big games. They need to play in close games and, relatively soon, be at least in the hunt for a playoff spot.

High-level goaltending can make that happen by, as the cliché goes, giving them a chance to win every night.

Miller’s Still Got It

Hoegler argued that Ryan Miller’s numbers were not impressive, but I look at the same numbers and beg to differ. His save percentage in three seasons in Vancouver is .914, right in line with the league average (.913 this past season) on a team that has too often abandoned him in the defensive zone.

And there’s no evidence whatsoever that he is in decline; his career save percentage is .915. So while it is likely that decline will set in soon — he is 37 years old — there is every reason to believe he could still perform at that level for at least one more season.

Let’s be clear; this has to be a short-term deal. Ideally one year and certainly no more than two. Age will catch up with him — it might be this season, it might be next season — and the Canucks don’t need any more albatross contracts (looking at you Brandon Sutter and Loui Eriksson). But neither are the Canucks in any immediate cap trouble, so a short-term deal for Miller would not jeopardize the team’s ability to sign its young core as they develop.

Indeed, this is precisely why Miller makes sense. At this point in his career, he can’t possibly demand a long-term deal, so unless Anaheim or LA offer him better money, there’s a good chance he accepts a one or two year contract in Vancouver.

What About Markstrom?

Jacob Markstrom seems like a nice guy and a solid second-string goaltender. But he has not yet proven that he is good enough to be the top guy. His career .906 save percentage is well below Miller’s and he hasn’t stolen the crease when Miller has been injured. In fact, while he has been a serviceable and relatively steady goalie, Markstrom has rarely stolen games for the Canucks.

Miller, by contrast, committed absolute larceny on several occasions last season to keep the Canucks’ (rather foolish) playoff dreams alive into the spring.

Part of the blame for this situation must be placed on former head coach Willie Desjardins. Over the past two seasons, with Vancouver floundering through a halfhearted “retool,” the coach could have given Markstrom a lot more time in the net to see whether he was ready to step into the top role.

He didn’t. Then Markstrom got hurt.

Tough break for the not-quite-a-kid-anymore, because it means that in the summer of 2017 we still don’t really know if he can emerge as a starter. And to be a starter on the 2017-18 Vancouver Canucks will be one of the toughest jobs in hockey. If Jacob Markstrom buckles under that pressure, it could get very, very ugly.

Why Not Sign Someone Else?

Sure, the Vancouver Canucks could sign Brian Elliott, Jimmy Howard, or Steve Mason. Are any of these goaltenders a step up from Ryan Miller and would any of them be willing to accept a short-term deal?

Elliott’s career .913 save percentage is less than what Ryan Miller achieved in so-called decline last season. Howard is dead-even with Miller at .915, and Mason is at just .911 and has been in noticeable decline since 2014-15.

Each of these is a good goaltender, but not better than Ryan Miller.

What they have on Miller is (relative) youth, meaning that they will be looking for — and stand a decent chance of getting — a longer-term deal. This makes them a terrible fit in Vancouver. The last thing Jim Benning should be doing is tying up any more long term money on pieces that will not be part of the rebuild.

There has even been speculation that Vancouver could work on a deal for the Dallas Stars’ third pick that would involve taking on one of the disastrous Dallas contracts of Kari Lehtonen or Antti Niemi. Wow. Let’s hope this is just grist for the mill, because if Jim Benning is seriously considering it, the Canucks are in for a decade of darkness.

Millsy and Marky

A lot of things went wrong in 2016-17. Goaltending was not one of them. Ryan Miller was excellent and Jacob Markstrom was good. This formula will work in 2017-18, especially if head coach Travis Green uses a more balanced goaltending platoon. Miller is better when rested, and Markstrom needs more time in the net.

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And while I don’t like to overemphasize “intangibles,” it needs be said that Ryan Miller has proven to be a very good leader for the Canucks. His work ethic, competitiveness, and the studious way in which he thinks about the game can only help the young core as it prepares to take over the team.

As the ship was sinking last season, rookie Nikolay Goldobin was inserted into the lineup after missing several games with a brutal flu. He didn’t look great but, in fairness, none of the Canucks did. Brandon Sutter took Goldobin to task in the media, suggesting he needed to find his “balls.” Ryan Miller, by contrast, took the young Russian forward aside after practice and sat with him for awhile. In the same media scrum during which Sutter criticized Goldobin’s lack of “grit,” Miller said:

"“I just thought he looked good today and he looked like he needed someone to tell him he was good. He’s got a lot of good things going. Like a lot of guys, he’s young. He’ll get it figured out.”"

That, dear readers, is leadership. Miller recognized that, in that moment, what this kid needed was some confidence, not an attack on his manhood.

Another year of that kind of leadership can only pay dividends for a rebuilding team.

Next: Penguins teach Vancouver how to win

That Miller is also still a high-level goaltender who would accept a short-term contract makes this a no-brainer. Get him signed for one year or two, so that the young core can lose close games with Miller and Markstrom until they are good enough to win them with Demko and Markstrom.