By Allan Muir
The St. Louis Blues are all in.
Gearing up for a run at their first Stanley Cup in franchise history, the Blues swung a blockbuster five-player deal tonight with the Buffalo Sabres, acquiring franchise goaltender Ryan Miller and team captain Steve Ott.
In exchange, the Blues sent goaltender Jaroslav Halak, forward Chris Stewart and prospect William Carrier to the Sabres, along with a first-round draft pick in 2015 and a third-round draft pick in 2016.
Buffalo will also cover the difference between the salaries of Miller and Halak, approximately $1.75 million.
This is a bold, game-changing move by GM Doug Armstrong, one that not only legitimizes the Blues as a Cup front-runner, but also throws down the gauntlet and dares other challengers to ante up.
In Miller, the Blues land a netminder with a proven ability to carry a team on his back. His MVP performance in the 2010 Olympics is the stuff of hockey legend, a gutsy, follow-me-boys tour de force that lifted an underdog American squad to within one goal of a gold medal.
In 540 NHL games, Miller is 284-186-56 with a 2.60 GAA and a .916 save percentage, but he's saved some of his best hockey for this season. Playing behind a Sabres team that had a passing acquaintance with its own zone, he was 15-22-3 with a 2.72 GAA and .923 save percentage. Given a chance to work with a Ken Hitchcock-coached defense, he could redefine beast mode.
But it's not his regular season performance that swayed the Blues. It's that ability to elevate his performance when the games matter most. No one will ever forget Halak's surgical dismissal of the Capitals for Montreal in 2010, but he never managed to reach those heights again. Since joining the Blues, injuries have limited him to two postseason appearances and that nagging familiarity with the IR--along with a miserable turn between Slovakia's pipes in Sochi--made it clear he wasn't the bulwark that St. Louis needed him to be.
For the Blues to take the next step, they needed an upgrade in the crease. Miller's that and then some.
The addition of Ott isn't quite as glamorous, but he fills an obvious need for some sandpaper up front. Molded by Hitchcock when the two were in Dallas, he's a versatile and defensively responsible forward who can bring menace and timely offense. An ace on the penalty kill and a strong and vocal presence in the room, he'll make his presence felt every single night--and just imagine if he lines up alongside Vladimir Sobotka and Max Lapierre on what could be the most aggravating line in league history.
While the Blues are looking for a payoff in June, this is the sort of long-term win the rebuilding Sabres and new GM Tim Murray desperately needed.
There was no guarantee that the market would generate a significant return for Miller. Given his cap hit and his expiring contract, there was never going to be a bidding war for his services. There was a better than even chance Murray would have to settle for pennies on the dollar. But by packaging him with Ott and taking on a couple of contracts in Halak and Stewart, he got what he really needed: those two draft picks and a solid prospect in Carrier, a budding power forward taken 57th overall in 2013.
And if he turns around and flips Halak and Stewart, this swap could end up looking even better. But even as is, this deal leaves the Sabres with two firsts and three seconds in both 2014 and 2015. Those are 10 chances to create a very bright future. You have to hand it to Murray. He was brought in earlier this season because team president Pat Lafontaine believed he was uniquely qualified to oversee the dispersal of the team's expiring assets. One trade into his tenure and already he's given Buffalo's fans something they haven't had in years: hope.