|ESPN.com: NHL||[Print without images]|
ARLINGTON, Va. -- There is the history, the emotion, the sentiment, and then there is the cold reality. Somewhere in the middle is netminder Ryan Miller.
In the coming weeks and months, the most valuable player of the 2010 Olympic hockey tournament will strive to move his reality back to those warm fuzzy moments in Vancouver when he earned the mantle as the best goaltender on the planet.
It will not be an easy task for a netminder who has seen his stock fall since the U.S. lost the gold-medal game to Canada. But, at the same time, Miller's single-minded focus at regaining his standing as the pre-eminent American-born goalie in the game will be the most compelling of many compelling stories that will reveal themselves before the U.S. team is announced, likely on Jan. 1 at the Winter Classic in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"People love to debate this, and they're going to say that I haven't done enough and there's guys that have surpassed me in the past few years. And, statwise, there's not much of an argument," Miller conceded Tuesday as the U.S. orientation camp wrapped up with the unveiling of the team's new Olympic jerseys.
Miller is as self-aware as any NHLer we've come across. He is a student of the game, and he is a student of his own game. And he is correct.
Jonathan Quick is the odds-on favorite to be the starter, given his superlative play the past couple of years, play that includes a Conn Smythe Trophy in 2012 as playoff MVP for his work in guiding the Los Angeles Kings to their first Stanley Cup. Quick, the third goaltender in Vancouver for the Americans, was again stellar this past spring as the Kings lost in the Western Conference finals to eventual Stanley Cup winner Chicago.
Jimmy Howard has become "the man" for the Detroit Red Wings, and Craig Anderson was likely on his way to a Vezina Trophy season last year had it not been for injuries. Cory Schneider is also in the mix for one of the three goaltending spots on the U.S. team that will take the ice in Sochi in February (John Gibson was also at the orientation camp but is likely too young and inexperienced to be given any real shot to make the team).
His numbers have faltered since the Olympic season in which he also won a Vezina Trophy with a .929 save percentage. The past three seasons, Miller's save percentage has been .915, .916 and .916. Now, stats are just that, numbers that tell some of the story but not all.
The Buffalo Sabres, for whom Miller has toiled his entire NHL career, have been a poor team, missing the playoffs the past two seasons. He is entering the last year of his contract with the team.
In the two days of media sessions at the orientation camp, Miller patiently answered questions about his fall from grace. And, if it rankled for a man with the kind of résumé Miller possesses to have to rationalize how he might scratch and claw his way onto the 2014 Olympic team, he did not betray such annoyance.
"Yeah, I understand the conversation," Miller said.
But there's more to this story than just a couple of off years, he insisted.
"I know what I'm capable of. I know I can play big games. I know I can play consistently for an entire season. I've done all these things. I've been there. If I'm not hungry to do it again, if I don't believe in myself, then you can discredit me and you can say, 'Well, Miller isn't a possibility for this team. Miller isn't meant to be on this team,'" Miller said.
"But I feel I'm on this team. I want to play games. I'm going to do my part to be a goaltender they're going to look to. Let's not take anything away from anybody, and it's certainly not being delusional; I've been there, I've done it. I feel like I'm good enough, and I have three months to prove it."
At 33 years of age, the Michigan native was the oldest player at the orientation camp. He and defenseman Brooks Orpik are the two oldest players. The two joked about how strange it was to be, somewhat suddenly, the graybeards at the event. Orpik recalls playing collegiate hockey and hoping his Boston College squad could avoid Miller and his Michigan State Spartans.
"If you could avoid Ryan Miller, that was definitely a good thing," Orpik said Tuesday.
Orpik was in Vancouver four years ago reveling in the chance to play alongside Miller.
"That's as well as I've seen a goalie play, especially against that high a level of competition," Orpik said. "When they say athletes are kind of in the zone, he definitely was for that short amount of time. He was a big part of the success we had, probably the biggest part looking back on it.
"Personality-wise, I look at him, as a player, I think he's one of the most prepared players and goalies I've ever played with, and I think that also has a lot to do with the success he has.
"I can't speak for some of the ups and downs he has in Buffalo. Since the Vancouver Games, I've always had tremendous respect for the way he plays and the way he prepares himself."
The big-picture take on the U.S. goaltending debate is that the depth the U.S. has in goal greatly enhances its chances at success in Sochi regardless of whether Miller plays his way back into the picture.
Depth, depth, depth. It's something that is relatively new to the task of building teams such as this one.
New York Rangers captain Ryan Callahan was part of the 2010 team and said it's pretty simple: Never mind missing out on gold by a single goal, there is no trip to the gold-medal game without Miller.
But the fact Miller feels he has to play at the top of his game in the regular season to get back his starting job isn't a bad thing, Callahan added.
"That's great. It doesn't diminish anything he's done in the past," he said.
It will be up to GM David Poile and his management team to determine just how much Miller's play in Vancouver factors into his place on this U.S. team. But the cold reality is that it might not factor in much at all unless Miller can return to elite status in the early going for the Sabres. But those are the kinds of hard decisions Poile said he signed up for when he took the job.
"We told the players, this is going to be the toughest team you've ever, ever made. Consequently, those will maybe be the toughest decisions I'm ever going to have to make," Poile said. "Honestly, I hope it's going to be tough. I don't want any easy decisions here. I want some guys to be disappointed. I hope myself and our committee make all the right decisions, but we want the hard decisions. With all due respect, we've never really had that many hard decisions to make.
"So, bring it on."
That may well be Miller's mantra in the coming days and weeks as well -- bring it on.
"You can't use that experience [in Vancouver] to stop pucks for you. If I haven't been playing at the level where these other guys have been the last few years comparatively, then that's where it plays out. It doesn't tick me off. Hopefully it's the motivating factor and certainly is," Miller said.
"In answering questions the last few days, it seems to be something that I have to really put up on the wall and remind myself every day that people are kind of discounting me and I'm not in the prime position I once was. But I feel like I'm a good goaltender. I feel I'm a goaltender who's actually made improvements. If I can capture the confidence and the right kind of energy I have to have to play, I can be world-class."