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Friday, February 28, 2014
Miller deal sets up Blues for West playoffs

By Scott Burnside and Craig Custance

Scott Burnside and Craig Custance break down what the Ryan Miller trade means for St. Louis and Buffalo.

BURNSIDE: Craig, well, that didn’t take long. Just nicely back in the NHL groove after the Olympic break and St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong pulls off what can rightfully be called a blockbuster deal, acquiring Ryan Miller and Steve Ott from Buffalo for a first-round pick in 2015, a third-round pick in 2016, prospect William Carrier, underachieving power forward Chris Stewart and suddenly superfluous netminder Jaroslav Halak. Wow!

I think a lot of us figured there was a match to be made between the Sabres and Blues for Miller. As well as the Blues had played defensively this season -- they are third in goals allowed per game -- there was a distinct feeling that the tandem of Halak and Brian Elliott simply wasn’t capable of getting the Blues over the hump in the Western Conference. History suggested that was true and obviously Armstrong felt the same way as he went after a goaltender with a top pedigree in Miller. So, does the former Vezina Trophy winner tip the scales in your eyes? Are the Blues now as good as the rest -- or better -- in the tough, tough West?

CUSTANCE: For my money, the Blues already stacked up as one of the best teams in the West. They're deep up and down the lineup. In listening to Armstrong explain the trade Friday night, I think you can give one player in particular credit for inspiring this move: Jonathan Quick. The Blues ran into Quick and the Kings the past two seasons in the playoffs and he was a huge reason the Blues were sent home early.

"I saw that again in the Olympics for Team USA," Armstrong said during his Friday evening conference call.

Now, in Miller, he has a goalie who can go toe-to-toe with Quick -- if that's the matchup at some point -- in the playoffs. The way those two teams are built, it almost seems inevitable.

Love the aggressiveness, but boy, that's a lot to give up for two players who can hit free agency in a few months, no?

BURNSIDE: Agreed that the Blues gave up a lot, although part of what they gave up was salary, which is no small thing for a team on a budget like the Blues. And it will be interesting to see how other teams in the West, like, say, Los Angeles, Chicago and Minnesota, react to the Blues' move. I know GMs don’t like to acknowledge making moves because their neighbor does, but I think it’s the reality especially with Chicago and the Blues seemingly on a collision course for a second-round matchup (I know, a ton of hockey to be played before then, just saying, it’s going to happen).

But let’s talk about the Sabres for a minute. Is it possible new GM Tim Murray may make a hundred trades before 3 p.m. Wednesday? For instance, is it beyond the realm of possibility that both Stewart, who has one more year left on his deal at a $4.15 million cap hit, and Halak, who will be an unrestricted free agent in July, could be dealt again before the deadline? And let’s just think of this: What if Halak ended up going back to the Western Conference to, say, Minnesota or even Chicago as a backup to Corey Crawford? I think it’s more than a little possible. Murray also has other assets he might end up dealing, including Matt Moulson and defenseman Christian Ehrhoff.

CUSTANCE: I could also see a guy like defenseman Henrik Tallinder being an attractive addition for a contending team looking to add depth like the Boston Bruins. When I spoke with Murray on Thursday, he said there were four or five guys beyond Miller, Ott and Moulson drawing interest from NHL teams. I wondered if former GM Darcy Regier raised the expectations in Buffalo too high with the return he got for Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek, but that's clearly not a concern any longer. Murray did just as well in this deal and could potentially have three first-round picks in a stacked 2015 draft. Other teams around the league should take note of the Sabres' strategy. The Sabres wisely started the rebuild while their best players still could get a premium return rather than wait too long like the Calgary Flames. Teams considering big changes, like the Vancouver Canucks, might want to follow suit. So what does this leave us to look forward to with Dan Girardi signing an extension in New York and Ryan Miller already traded?

BURNSIDE: Oh, I think there will be a few more surprises before Wednesday.

OK, before we close, let’s go back to the Blues. You referenced a couple of hard-fought but ultimately disappointing playoff losses to the Kings the past two years. They got swept in 2012 and then blew a 2-0 series lead against the Kings by losing four straight in the first round last spring. Yes, the goaltending wasn’t great in either of those series and it certainly didn't match up to Quick’s performance. Do you think Miller gives them at least a saw-off in that department if the two teams do end up meeting? Part of the Blues’ problems the past two playoff years has been a lack of offensive production. I love the addition of Steve Ott. Hey, he’s got Windsor connections so what’s not to love. But do you think this Blues team is capable of keeping up offensively with, say, the Blackhawks or the Ducks? I love these additions for the Blues, but boy the West is a hard, hard place for anyone wanting to get to the top.

CUSTANCE: It certainly levels the playing field for the Blues in having Miller in goal. But even so -- if they face the Kings, it's against a goalie in Quick who has owned them. If they face the Blackhawks or Sharks, it's against starting goalies who have both won Stanley Cups. The Ducks? All they have is a goalie in Jonas Hiller who currently owns a career save percentage of .935. This trade certainly removes the one question everybody had about the Blues and puts them on a level with the West's elite. Now we wait to see what the rest of the West does to counter.