The general consensus among the fans and media is that Ryan Miller had a down year in 2010-11. His 2.59 GAA and .916 save percentage paled in comparison to his Vezina winning season in 2009-10.
Miller did notch his sixth-straight 30-win season and was named team MVP for his work. A major culprit in his performance last year was the schedule he played. For the second time in his career, Miller shoulder the workload for over 30-straight games. That is 30-straight starts without any time off. Miller was forced to do the same in 2007-08 and his play was markedly worse in that season as well. There are two glaring reasons for these massive games played streaks. The Sabres needed Miller in net to make up ground in the playoff race; and Miller’s backup was so weak the coaching staff wouldn’t play him.
So, thank Jocelyn Thibault and Patrick Lalime for being better cheerleaders than goaltenders. Had Miller gotten a fair amount of rest, like he did early in 2009-10, his numbers would have been much better. The performance of the team in front of him also had a negative impact on his play.
As the 2011 season begins the Sabres seem to have an answer to the long-standing weakness at backup goaltender. Jhonas Enroth, who sparkled in relief of Miller at the end of last season, will be the full-time backup and should see more than his fair share of games.
I would expect Enroth to see action on the back-end of many few back-to-back sets. He will also get time against Western Conference teams. The only difference in his schedule compared to back ups in the past? He can be sprinkled in against Eastern Conference foes with confidence. Enroth should see no less than 20 games this year, while 30 would be on the very high end. That leaves Miller in the 60-game neighborhood, the perfect number to stay fresh heading into the playoffs.
To be clear, Miller’s injury-shortened campaign last year (and 2008-09) kept him from seeing his typical slate of games. He would have easily eclipsed 70 games last season, with that benchmark being in reach in the 08-09 season too. The reason it is important to get Miller rest if effectiveness. He is an all-world goaltender when he has time to recharge his batteries and prepare for his opponents. When Miller – or any goaltender – is thrown in the fire night after night, little more than mediocre performances can be expected. Black & Blue & Gold did a nifty study of this very theory last year, just for the ignorant Miller haters to savor. Obviously a rested athlete is better than a tired athlete. But when the athlete is your most valuable player and his success largely decides your fate, it is important that issue be addressed.
That is precisely where Jhonas Enroth enters. Now, Enroth has his strengths and weaknesses. He is one hell of a gamer, but has slow hands and the propensity to give up some juicy rebounds. However, he is technically sound and is errily similar to Henrik Lundqvist in many situations. All of the Enroth worshipers should probably prepare for a slightly worse season than last year. Teams will have scouted him and not playing every night will have some adverse effects on his game. Still, I have great faith that he is capable of playing in 25 games and getting the Sabres at least 15 victories.
With a goaltending tandem of Miller and Enroth, there is little doubt that the Sabres should see a few more points from the win column this season. Perhaps even enough to reach fourth or fifth place in the Eastern Conference.