When the Sabres were secure in the nets with a very good net-minder in Ryan Miller, some of the talk show critics were very quick to point out his shortcomings. They quickly added that goaltending had evolved into a position that you can pick one up anywhere and the drop-off would not be that significant. In their opinion investing that much salary in a goalie just was not worth it.
That was during a time after Chris Drury and Daniel Briere were gone and the second tier core of the franchise was just not dominating the league. Also gone from that post-lockout dominating team was Jay McKee, J.P. Dumont, Brian Campbell, Henrik Tallinder, Michael Grier, and Marty Biron.
The year they won the division in 2010 post-Drury/Briere was the year that Miller stole the show and won the Vezina Trophy. In addition, he was named a first-team all-star and recorded 41 regular-season victories.
Let us not forget that he dominated the 2010 Olympic tournament en route to winning the MVP while leading Team USA to the Silver Medal. That was Miller’s nonpareil year in my opinion. The individual accomplishments strengthen that claim. Others may argue his best season was 2006-07 as he hit the 40 win mark as the Sabres won the President’s Trophy. One can safely say Miller had a remarkable career in Rochester and Buffalo. He became the winningest American goalie of all time earlier this year while playing for the Ducks. Plus, he should add to that as they gave him another one year contract to come back for yet another season.
The years they went to the Conference Finals he was rock solid. He had a team that was “lights out” in most areas and was young. All the while, he was still perfecting his goal-tending style. Marty Biron was the incumbent and was playing at an All-Star level when his number was called. The number 43, not 00, just to be clear for those Marty fans.
Since Miller was traded the Sabres have gone through goalies similar to the Bills at quarterback post-Jim Kelly. I take into consideration that a handful of capable goalies were circulated in and out of Buffalo during the tanking years. They could not afford a goalie to get on some hot streak jeopardizing them finishing last and missing out on McDavid or Eichel.
Many of these media critics were all over Dominik Hasek for every little mistake as he dominated the earth for years. Some of those critics waited until after Hasek was long gone to really appreciate how great the “Dominator” was each night. Others jumped all over the Steve Shields bandwagon suggesting the drop off was minimal. HELLO?
Andrei Trefilov was extremely inconsistent. Dwayne Roloson was selected by Columbus in the expansion draft. When Hasek was traded, many media members were in agreement with the team moving on. They forget he got a late start in the NHL and was a freak of nature athletically. Slinky for a spine…remember? He went on to play many more years, winning two Stanley Cups in Detroit. I will not say the remainder of his career was played at his peak level. However, for a few seasons, he was still a top NHL goalie.
A time did exist where he should have potentially stayed retired as he battled injury. People forget the year he lost his playoff starting job to Chris Osgood, although justified, he was battling through a short stretch of average goaltending. The Red Wings eventually went with the hot hand. It wasn’t long before that, Hasek was having another all-star level regular season.
When Hasek left Buffalo, the Sabres had an identity crisis between the pipes. That last beyond the 2004 lockout. Marty Biron was up and down from the minors and Mika Noronen never turned out to be the goalie he was projected to be. He shined at times in the minor leagues and had a couple of moments in Buffalo. However, injuries played a part in his stunted development. Ryan Miller eventually made a couple of appearances but was not mature enough to be a regular in the league. Bob Essensa and Peter Skudra made some cameos in the crease but they were hardly memorable showings.
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Hasek’s experience wasn’t too dissimilar to another former Sabre. When Tom Barrasso was traded to the Penguins, he, like Hasek, won two Stanley Cups in a nearby city. Media claimed the Sabres would be better off. His replacement, Daren Puppa, never really became elite as expected as he shared the duties for years. Some of those net-minders on that sidekick list were Darcy Wakaluk, Tom Draper, Clint Malarchuk, Darren Eliot and David Littman.
As years of playoff futility continued, things finally came to a head for the Sabres as they acquired playoff legend Grant Fuhr to help ensure some playoff success. The Sabres sent Puppa packing and Fuhr delivered a playoff series win when Buffalo and Brad May swept Boston. “May Day! May Day! May Day!”. Despite not being able to finish off the series, Fuhr gave the Sabres that needed edge. In addition, Fuhr’s absence paved the way for unheard of backup, Dominik Hasek. The run came to an end against the Patrick Roy-led Montreal Canadiens. The Habs, of course, would go on to hoist the Stanley Cup.
Most Stanley Cup-winning teams have had a top-level NHL goalie. The Sabres had solid goal-tending when I was growing up with the duo of Don Edwards and Bob Sauve. The Oilers dynasty had All-star level play from Fuhr, Andy Moog and even Bill Ranford. Not every great goalie can match the resumes of guys like Martin Brodeur, Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy, Fuhr or Billy Smith. Some goalies have dominated on individual levels and eventually capture that elusive Cup. Carey Price would be that goalie with the individual dominance but he is still waiting for that date with Stanley. No, not THAT Stanley.
A goalie can be the crucial piece for a great team seeking a Stanley Cup. Detroit comes to mind when they went out and acquired Mike Vernon or Hasek.
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For the present-day Sabres, the jury is still out on Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark. They both performed admirably during the early success the team had early on. Although it wasn’t the only issue, goaltending struggles were very much a contributing factor in the disastrous season demise. However, with a better supporting cast, both of these netminders could have a bounce-back year.
Some day, some article will have a reason to spend time discussing one of my favorite Sabres underdog goalies.” Little-Jacques-eeey-Cloutier.” But I digress.
In addition to Hutton and Ullmark, The Sabres acquired Andrew Hammond to be the number three guy. He likely will start in Rochester but, if called upon, he can build off his prior NHL experience to spell Hutton and Ullmark. The Sabres do have some young goalie talent in the pipeline, however, for now, they will have to settle on a 31-year-old Hammond, a 33-year-old Hutton, and a 26-year-old Ullmark.
Whenever Sabres have an all-star goalie the critics claim they are replaceable. “The stud goalie is not needed”, they say. The cost and cap hit of “the stud” is generally an issue. However, the grass isn’t necessarily greener on the other side when you wind up with a revolving door of mediocre netminders.
Goalies play the entire game. A bad goal allowed can change the momentum at the drop of a dime. A goalies confidence, or lack of, can dictate how the entire team plays at any given moment.
As Dwight Kurt Schrute III would phrase it, “Fact: Goaltending matters.”
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