The Sabres' dressing room had virtually emptied out Monday when Ryan Miller emerged as the last player to address the media about another lost year. By then, locker clean-out day had come to resemble the regular season. It was reduced to people sitting around and waiting for the franchise goaltender to show up.
True to form, Miller didn't disappoint once he arrived. He answered every question the way he has many times over the years, with deep thought and measured honesty in an effort to adequately respond without offending anyone. He said he felt sick to his stomach knowing he played a major role in another year ending in failure.
His gracious approach to the annual postmortem sounded like a continuation of the regular season. The Sabres didn't run away and hide when they fell into last place in the conference, and Miller never backed down Monday. He handled a few shots and accepted responsibility for underachieving.
"Yeah, we had our shortcomings," Miller said. "There's enough talent in that group of guys to be on a winning hockey club and a club that can develop into a contending club. But we didn't get the job done. It takes some soul searching here. You have to be at a higher level. I don't want to waste seasons."
Finally, the Sabres stopped using injuries as an excuse. The theme mostly was about their unstable mind-set and loss of confidence more than it was a loss of manpower. They spoke about their mental fragility, which led to a lack of consistency. Basically, they didn't have the competitive edge required to win.
They were too soft.
Nobody should feel comfortable after missing the playoffs for the third time in five years and failing to win a playoff series for a fifth straight season. Darcy Regier doesn't appear to be going anywhere. He conducted exit interviews Monday when he should have been facing one. Lindy Ruff's job appears safe for the foreseeable future.
Regardless, like it or not, the Sabres' success begins and ends with Miller.
He made $6.25 million again this year but didn't justify his salary, plain and simple. He was an utter mess for two months before an inexplicable turnaround in January saved him from complete embarrassment. Over the final two months, he rediscovered the form made him a star in the 2010 Olympics and Vezina Trophy winner.
There was no middle ground with him this season. He didn't just play poorly at times. He was a disaster. He didn't merely improve. He was terrific.
"Mainly, it was enough is enough," Miller said. "I'm better than this. I wanted to prove something. I had a lot to play for. I don't know. A lot of things just jumbled up. I guess I still don't know how to explain it. It was a moment of clarity, honestly. It kind of did just snap into place. It wasn't like I forgot. It just wasn't available to me."
Ultimately, it added up to average goaltending.
All indications Monday pointed toward him returning, but the Sabres should take a good look at their franchise goalie and make sure he still is one. The Sabres missed the playoffs with Miller and can certainly do the same without him. They don't have the luxury of sitting around and hoping his game somehow snaps into place next season.
He wasn't their only problem. He made a point to say his success and failure was intertwined with the play of his teammates. He's right, but nobody means more than he does. To not even entertain thoughts of trading him would be irresponsible. And the same goes for anybody else on the roster.
Miller's last two seasons fall in line with his career. He had a 2.59 goals-against average and .916 save percentage in 2010-11. He had a 2.55 GAA and .916 SP, both of which were ranked 21st or worse, this season. He has a 2.57 GAA and .915 SP in a career including a 2.22 GAA and .939 SP when he won the Vezina.
The Sabres should expect more after handing him a five-year deal worth $31.25 million three years ago. Jonas Hiller makes $1.725 million per season less than Miller. They're rarely mentioned in the same sentence, but their career stats are almost identical. Martin Biron is just behind both but made $800,000 this year with the Rangers.
Miller has two years remaining on his five-year deal worth $31.25 million. They could make a trade for a younger, less expensive goalie such as Canucks backup Cory Schneider, who made $900,000. Schneider, 26, is ready to become a No. 1 goalie and is certain to get a hefty raise after posting a 1.96 GAA and .937 save percentage this year.
Tampa Bay will be looking for a No. 1 goaltender and could use power forward Ryan Malone, who has a $4.5 million cap hit, as trade bait. The Bolts also have Teddy Purcell, another winger who is making about $2.3 million. Buffalo would lose on a straight-up deal, but it could be better off overall by landing Schneider.
Relax. It's just an example. I have no idea if the aforementioned players will be available. But anything and everything is worth checking out at this stage. It takes a certain amount of creativity and confidence to make bold moves, but it's that kind of thinking that's required if the Sabres are going to build a winner.
Buffalo could ultimately determine that the right play is keeping him. We'll see if the Sabres make the right call. We'll see if Miller shows up.
"I made a commitment to be here," Miller said. "It's up to them how they use me as an asset. I don't know. Every indication is that I need to improve things in my game, in my approach that Lindy, Darcy and I talk about in these exit meetings and the approach we'll have in the next few months and prepare for another hockey season.
"That being said, it's up to Darcy to make the moves. You're going to have to talk to him. You're going to have to talk to Lindy about what he thinks of his cast."
We can hardly wait.