Blues are facing a tough decision in goal

News-DemocratJanuary 30, 2014 

One of the hottest topics around the NHL has been the future home of Ryan Miller, the 33-year-old Buffalo Sabres veteran with a Vezina Trophy and Winter Olympics MVP with Team USA to his credit.

Trade rumors have linked Miller to several teams, including the St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild.

The Blues are at an interesting crossroads when it comes to filling the six-foot space between the goalposts for now and the foreseeable future.

Both Blues goalies --Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott -- are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents after this season. Waiting in the wings is top goaltending prospect Jake Allen, 23 years old with a solid NHL stint under his belt from last season.

Current Blues starter Halak (23-7-3) has won his last four starts and six of his last seven, recently posting his franchise-record 20th Blues shutout. If Halak is hearing or reading anything about the Miller trade rumors, his play has not reflected any panic at all.

Halak , 28, ranks second in the NHL with four shutouts and is tied for seventh in wins. His 2.23 goals-against average ranks ninth.

Elliott's numbers are also solid. He is 13-4-2 with a 2.06 goals-against average (sixth in the NHL) and three shutouts (seventh in the NHL).

So with two legitimate goaltenders in place and a goalie of the future in Allen, why would the Blues be interested in Miller?

Blues fans wanting a trade will try to make the case that the team's solid defense corps and tight forechecking defensive system under coach Ken Hitchcock would help make many goaltenders' numbers look a little better.

Halak and Elliott combined to win the Jennings Trophy two years ago for having the best goals-against average in the league. This season, the Blues are third in the NHL with a combined 2.30 goals-against average.

Miller is a Michigan native who figures to battle Jonathan Quick for the starting Team USA goaltending job. He's also about to finish out a contract that pays $6.25 million and can become an unrestricted free agent after the season.

Buffalo has a new general manager in Tim Murray, but also owns the NHL's worst record (14-30-8). The Sabres are about to begin a rebuilding phase and may be hoping to parlay a Miller trade into bringing at least an established player, a top prospect and draft pick in return.

Despite playing for a last-place team, Miller's numbers are fairly solid. He has a 13-20-3 record, but ranks fifth in shots against (1,272), fifth in saves (1,178) and sixth in overall save percentage (.926) with a 2.61 goals-against average.

Like Halak and Elliott (and the Blues), Miller has never won a Stanley Cup.

In four playoff series, Miller has helped his team advance out of the first round twice. He helped the Sabres reach the Eastern Conference finals twice, in 2006 and 2007.

Halak backstopped the Montreal Canadiens to the Eastern Conference finals just before joining the Blues, but has played in only two Blues playoff games because of injuries.

Because of those injuries. Elliott has handled the bulk of the playoff goaltending duties. He is 5-8 in the postseason with the Blues.

Another factor to consider is the Blues are already near the top of the NHL salary cap according to Capgeek.com, so unless they move a goaltender and more salary Miller could be a tight fit.

Are they willing to reshape a team already fighting for first place in the NHL and add another veteran goalie for the stretch drive and playoffs?

Given their lack of recent playoff success, it could happen.

Blues GM Doug Armstrong has a history of making bold, decisive moves that usually remain under the radar until the day they are announced.

The Halak trade was like that, as was the move that sent former first overall pick Erik Johnson and Jay McClement to Colorado for Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk.

Needing an upgrade on defense last season, Armstrong moved quickly to obtain veterans Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold, then signed both to contract extensions.

With so many pieces in place, including a wealth of young talent on defense (Alex Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk) and up front (Alexander Steen, David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, etc.), would Armstrong be willing to go all in on a goaltending deal?

Stay tuned because the NHL has two trade deadlines this season --the roster freeze before the Olympic break next week and another on March 5 before rosters expand.

Norm Sanders has been the Blues beat writer for the News-Democrat since 1995. He can be reached at 239-2454, nsanders@bnd.com or follow him on Twitter: @NormSanders.

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