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Miller banks on the Sabres being on the money Miller looked around and realized everything he wanted in his career was right here

Ryan Miller scoffed at the question last season, when people began wondering whether he would be the next great player and leader from the Buffalo Sabres' recent glory days to pack up his equipment and split town. The flight pattern had already been established, and he was sitting in the proverbial captain's seat.

Miller was entering the final year of his contract with free agency, big money and bigger cities waiting for him in the open market. He was playing for a Sabres organization that had built a reputation for refusing to pay its superstars and couldn't stop the bleeding. Plus, he was entering the prime years of his career.

Detroit seemed like a natural choice. The Red Wings are among the NHL's elite every season. Their goalies were getting older, and it figured to be a chance for him to play closer to home. Many assumed Miller was a Red Wings fan (not true) while growing up in East Lansing, Mich.

At one point, someone in the media (not me) actually encouraged him to play in Motown.
"I tried to learn from the whole grass-is-greener fable," Miller said. "Look around."

Miller looked around and realized everything he wanted in his career was right here. He was the No. 1 goalie for a team that had a taste of success and was starving for it again. He had built a network of friends, people he trusted away from hockey. He had earned his place within the community and was guaranteed to make a good buck.

Mostly, though, he saw the core of teammates with whom he had built a strong bond, a group that had blossomed and helped the Sabres reach the Eastern Conference finals two straight years, blood brothers who wanted to stay together. He wasn't looking to leave Buffalo for Detroit. He wanted to find the Red Wings' success with the Sabres.

"It didn't really click for them until they became a cohesive unit," Miller said. "Looking back on the way they handled things there, you hope to see some similarities within a team like this that's going to keep a group of guys together who have a good attitude. It's all about attitude. We have the talent."
The Sabres scored the fourth-most goals in the NHL last season. They should contend for a playoff spot this season, especially after a full offseason for the first time since the lockout. If you like this team now, you're going to adore this team in another year or two when their good, young prospects mature into NHL players.
Lindy Ruff made defenseman Craig Rivet captain Wednesday, but he could have named Captain Kangaroo and it wouldn't have mattered. This is Miller's team. He signed a five-year contract extension worth $31.25 million that will keep him locked up until the 2012-13 season.

At 28, Miller has evolved from a spectacular college player at Michigan State into a very good goaltender, a respected voice in the dressing room and the face of the franchise.

Finally, enough money was enough money. Miller knew when he agreed to the deal that he could wind up being underpaid down the road. The fact he wanted to stay sent a strong message that reverberated across the organization and was heard around the league.

"Ryan really believes in the team," Ruff said. "He believes in what's here and believes we can win. We all believe that. The final message was signing that deal."

Parity is stronger than ever in the NHL these days, and the Sabres' success will depend largely on the play of their goaltender. It could mean the difference between fifth and 12th, and people will be looking toward him in victory and defeat.

He accepted that truth long ago. He believes he's a better, more mature player than he was last season, when he was forced to face tough questions for the first time in his career.
Bet the house there will be more this season. Thomas Vanek found out last season how the pressure intensifies under the weight of a monster contract and higher standards. It doesn't matter whether it comes internally or externally; what matters is how it's managed on a daily basis. Miller is the franchise goalie, and he will be expected to play like one.

"It starts with the goalie," said winger Jason Pominville, who signed a five-year extension. "It's how you build your team. We have Ryan locked up for the next six years. He's our best player, and we need him at the top of his game to have success. He's so talented and works extremely hard in every practice. It's fun to know you have a guy like that you can count on no matter what."

Miller had his problems last season, when he had a 36-27-10 record, a 2.64 goals-against average and a .906 save percentage in 76 games. He was more shaky than Wall Street in shootouts. He was sixth in victories but 24th in GAA and 29th in save percentage. His seven losses (against four wins) in shootouts were tied for second most in the league. His .576 save percentage was 46th.
Take a closer look, however, and you'll find the roots to his problems. He had a difficult time dealing with the illness of his cousin, Matt Schoals, who died from leukemia complications early in the season. The two had a close relationship, and Miller didn't realize until after the season that it took him months to regain his full focus.
He also was overworked. Jocelyn Thibault played about 15 minutes before Ruff, who has shown little patience for backups, lost confidence in him. Miller wound up starting 34 straight games with the Sabres trying to get into the postseason. He was physically and mentally drained down the stretch, when they needed him most.
Nobody likes excuses, but let's be realistic here, too. Miller had a 5-9-1 record with a 3.88 GAA and an .868 save percentage in 15 games -- counting his first 10, when he had personal issues, and his worst five among his final 20, when he was fried. Take them away, and he had a 31-18-9 record with a 2.33 GAA and a .916 save percentage.
The Sabres should expect similar results if they give him the proper workload. Ruff insisted that he has implemented a flexible schedule designed to give Miller more rest regardless of how well newcomer Patrick Lalime plays behind him. Miller insisted he's ready to take the next step rather than the next flight out of town.

"I've gone through every scenario in my head," Miller said. "You prepare for the best, prepare for the worst and do everything you can. It's a good situation to be a player you want to keep around and build with. It's a compliment. I just have to be accountable to the guys in here and myself."

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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