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NHL moves devalue elite goalies

You have to give it up to Ryan Miller. An amazing season on the ice, in both the NHL and Olympics, and a selfless dedication to hockey. All those interviews and promotional appearances were about Miller serving the game and not himself. Very few athletes do anything close.

Miller is the face of the Sabres. By far. Maybe Tyler Myers will be some day but not now. It's Miller. The goalie making $6.25 million a year. Any old-time hockey guy worth his mouthguard will insist that you build from the net out. And that's what the Sabres decided two summers ago. No problem there, right?

I always thought so. Now I'm not so sure. The playoffs were our first big hint. What we're seeing as we head into free agency really tells a tale.

The San Jose Sharks walked away from Evgeni Nabokov on Tuesday after 10 seasons. The Montreal Canadiens dealt Jaroslav Halak -- the real Conn Smythe Trophy winner -- to St. Louis last week clearly because they were spooked by the kind of coin he was going to get soon.

We just watched a Stanley Cup final pitting Michael Leighton versus Antti Niemi. And they were both struggling to push their save percentages in the series above .900. Miller, Martin Brodeur and Ilya Bryzgalov were first-round losers in the playoffs. Roberto Luongo and Marc-Andre Fleury were lousy as second-round losers.

Henrik Lundqvist, Miikka Kiprusoff, Marty Turco, J.S. Giguere, Tomas Vokoun and Cam Ward weren't in the playoffs at all. Tim Thomas simply sat around as Tuukka Rask's backup.

It seems like momentum is swinging teams away from the elite goaltender, toward the idea of having at least four solid defensemen and enough offense to survive the pitfalls that take place in net.

We all learned during the Boston series the Sabres don't have enough reliable offense and the potential losses of both Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder to free agency would leave the defense awfully thin. You're not replacing their minutes simply with Mike Weber and Marc-Andre Gragnani.

Watching the free-agent wars for goaltenders is going to be very interesting come July 1. Nabokov is 34 and coming off a season where he made $6 million. In any other year, he gets big money on the market. Maybe he still does but one team that could use a goaltending upgrade (Philadelphia) already has cap issues. The Sharks are going to go cheaper in net so they can retain Patrick Marleau, among others.

"It's really tough to let someone go who has been here a long time," Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson said of Nabokov. "But it comes down to doing what's right for your team and the percentage of your salary cap."

Thomas has three more years left on his deal at a $5 million cap hit and is reportedly willing to waive his no-trade clause. The pathetic Islanders will still be paying Rick DiPietro $4.5 million per year through 2021!

The Canadiens, meanwhile, went with Carey Price over Halak in a move that's baffling to the hockey world (both are restricted free agents). The Habs are reportedly enamored with Price's size and feel Halak can be too vulnerable on high shots, as the Flyers showed in the Eastern Conference finals.

But if that deficiency is so obvious in Halak's play, why didn't the Capitals and Penguins figure it out over 14 games?

Keep your eyes on the big-name goalies on the market the next few weeks. In addition to Nabakov, there's Dallas' Turco, St. Louis' Chris Mason, Nashville's Dan Ellis, Tampa Bay's Antero Nittymaki, Washington's Jose Theodore. And, of course, old friend Marty Biron.

Miller deserves every piece of hardware he can get during his career. But as we saw in the playoffs, he can't win by himself. It seems like that's what the Sabres were hoping. Didn't work.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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