Long before he stepped on the ice in a Canucks uniform, Ryan Miller was a star in Vancouver.
In hockey circles, Miller is far from an unknown. The East Lansing, Michigan native led the Buffalo Sabres to two consecutive Eastern Conference Finals in 2005-06 and 2006-07, won the Vezina Trophy in 2009-10 and has been one of the NHL’s most consistent goalies throughout his entire career.
But when the Winter Olympics came to town in February 2010, Miller gained international fame backstopping Team USA to a silver medal, highlighted by his 42 save performance in the Americans’ 5-3 round robin victory over Canada. His amazing play earned him the Tournament MVP award and notoriety throughout the city.
Four years later Miller returned to Vancouver; but this time, he’d be playing for the home team. The Canucks signed the 34 year-old netminder to a three year deal in the summer of 2014, and while Miller never achieved the same level of success that he did with the Sabres, or even the St. Louis Blues, he did a lot more for the franchise than people may ever give him credit for.
While there’s no doubt that Buffalo and St. Louis are both US hockey hotbeds, the daunting task of playing in a Canadian market was a very new challenge for Miller. Not only would he expected to fill the net left vacant by the franchise’s all-time greatest goaltender, Roberto Luongo; he’d also need to fight for ice time with fan favourite Eddie Lack and lead the Canucks back to the playoffs.
Despite all of the expectations, it never seemed to faze Miller. His debut in a Canucks uniform was good as they come, putting up a 23 save performance in a 4-2 win over the Calgary Flames. It would be his first of 29 wins in 2014-15, and had a knee injury in February not put him in the press box until the last game of the season that number might’ve been closer to 40.
Miller’s injury not only put him on the sidelines in a figurative sense. It also opened the door for Eddie Lack, whose play over the next two months helped Vancouver secure a playoff spot and a 101 point campaign. When the playoffs began, Willie Desjardins chose Lack over a healthy Miller to start the first four games of the opening round against the Flames.
After Lack stumbled during Games 3 and 4 in Calgary, Miller was asked to command the crease once again. He answered with a 20 save performance in Game 5 to keep the Canucks alive and force a sixth game in Calgary.
Making the Best
For the Canucks, the 7-4 loss in Game 6 would mark the beginning of a serious decline, one that we’re still in today. Vancouver went from a 101 point playoff contender to a 69 point basement dweller in just three years. Not a lot has gone right in Vancouver since, but one of the few bright spots has been the play of Ryan Miller.
After Eddie Lack was traded in the 2015 offseason to the Carolina Hurricanes, Miller took full control of the starting position. In the last two seasons, he routinely kept the Canucks in games where they were severely outmatched, and even straight up stole a number of victories. He helped mentor the team’s next starter in Jacob Markstrom, who’s made tremendous strides in his two years backing up for Miller.
And yet, Canucks fans have racked up a number of complaints about their number one goalie in these three years. A lot of it had to do with his quiet personality, which many people perceived as standoffish or unfriendly; that it seemed like he didn’t care whether the team won or lost. People in the city had gotten used to the more joking and outgoing attitudes that both Luongo and Lack had brought to the team, and it made Miller seem cold by comparison.
But Miller wasn’t any of those things. He was simply a guy who mostly kept his on-ice emotions below the surface, and that calm and collected personality is one of the big reasons his play never went down with the rest of the team. Yet at the same time, he always played with heart and had his teammates’ backs on and off the ice, sometimes literally.
People talked about his play as well, saying it wasn’t at the same level as it had been during his time with the Sabres. While that might’ve been the case, Miller still played at a level that far exceeded any goaltending the Canucks got during the infamous “Goalie Graveyard” era that Luongo’s arrival ended in 2006. Injuries also hampered him a few times during his time with the Canucks, but he powered through and still put up decent numbers.
Orange County Bound
The Canucks did make an offer to bring Miller back, but he instead chose to chase his Stanley Cup dreams and signed a two-year deal with the Anaheim Ducks in July. With his departure and Vancouver handing the reigns over to the tandem of Jacob Markstrom and newcomer Anders Nilsson, it will mark the first time in over a decade where getting consistently solid goaltending is closer to a question mark than a guarantee to start the season.
Miller’s play during his three seasons as a Canuck will likely be masked by the rough campaigns of the team in front of him, but his overall contributions to the franchise will hopefully never be overlooked. He not only kept a rebuilding franchise competitive and entertaining, but also helped mentor the goalies and players that will lead the Vancouver Canucks in the seasons to come.
Good luck in Disneyland, Millsy. Go get that Cup.