Spotlight: St. Louis

March 24, 2014

The Blues, one of the most consistently ... well, middling franchises in all of pro sports, struck just the right note with their bold trade for Ryan Miller. It might just be enough to bring the city its first Cup

THE BLUES ARE hockey's faceless franchise, almost always good but hardly ever great. That is about to change, if it hasn't already. St. Louis, the oldest expansion team without a Cup, has been atop the league's standings for the better part of the last two weeks. And by snagging Ryan Miller—a world-class goalie mired in last-place Buffalo—on Feb. 28, in a deal involving five players and two picks, the Blues blew up the bridge behind them. Miller, whose résumé includes a Vezina Trophy and a heroic run to the silver medal at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, went unbeaten in his first five starts in St. Louis. He is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. "There are no guarantees we can re-sign him," says Blues GM Doug Armstrong, who gave up a first-round pick in 2015 and a conditional third-round pick in '16. "We feel we have the pieces in place to win this year. No sense waiting. We were not in the goaltender market; we were in the market for Ryan Miller."

Here's the skinny on Miller: At 6'2" and 168 pounds, he has the physique of a goalpost, but the 33-year-old has a steely confidence—and the winning pedigree—that St. Louis has lacked. Jaroslav Halak, the goalie the Blues shipped to the Sabres in Miller's place (Buffalo, in turn, sent Halak to the Capitals), had set a franchise mark with 20 shutouts since the beginning of the 2010--11 season but had won just one playoff game. Miller plays with such impeccable form that he makes most of his saves, even the tough ones, look routine, almost easy. Few goalies get in shooters' heads as Miller can. "At Ryan's best, nobody's better," says Steve Ott, the sandpaper forward who came with Miller from Buffalo in the trade. "A good team plays bigger knowing he has your back." Miller might look like a goalpost, but he makes a fine pillar for the Blues.

Miller has a ritual that he goes through an hour or two before every game he plays. He walks to the edge of the boards, stares onto the ice before an empty arena and visualizes his craft—holding the same position and making the same save several times before moving on to the next one, like a jump shooter moving to the next station only after knocking down several shots in a row. "I started that when I was a teenager," he said after practice last week. "Locker rooms were noisy, parents were walking around. It was the only quiet place where nobody's cheering or patting you on the back." His disdain for distractions and his quiet personality make him a perfect fit for the no-name, businesslike Blues, but peace and quiet may be elusive if he leads them in a Stanley Cup parade this spring.

Given the franchise's historic lack of identity, St. Louis's nickname may as well be the Plaids or the Grays. In an effort to bolster expansion efforts beginning in 1967--68, the NHL put all six expansion franchises in the West Division, thereby ensuring that one of the new teams would reach the Cup finals. The Blues, coached by a young Scotty Bowman and with a roster full of long-in-the-tooth veterans, reached the finals in each of their first three years, going 0--12 against the Canadiens (twice) and the Bruins. Those St. Louis teams are best remembered as the faceless background players in Bobby Orr's airborne Cup-clinching overtime goal in 1970. Thirteen years later, the financially struggling organization found itself contemplating a move to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The Blues didn't draft anyone that year because Ralston Purina, the pet food company that had bought the team in 1977, was embroiled in an antitrust suit against the NHL and chose to boycott the proceedings (which, conveniently, also saved some additional kibble).

While most franchises have had their ups and downs, St. Louis has had mostly middles. The club made the playoffs every season from 1979--80 to 2003--04, the third-longest streak in North American sports history, but it never got back to the Cup finals—and only twice reached the conference finals. No St. Louis player has ever won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's points leader, though in each generation one seems to get singled out as the game's most underrated talent, from Garry Unger in the 1970s to Bernie Federko in the '80s to David Backes, the current captain. Miller gives the Blues a headliner, their first player since Brett Hull who could fill an NHL marquee. "We've earned the league's respect," says Backes, "but the casual fan doesn't really know us. Not yet."

MILLER WASN'T around to feel the love in Buffalo on Feb. 28, hours after he was traded. As a video tribute played at First Niagara Center that night, fans chanted the name of the franchise leader in wins (284) and games (540). On their way to missing the playoffs for the third straight season, the woebegone Sabres are a mess, with a front office in chaos. Popular Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine, the club's president of hockey operations, resigned on March 1 after less than four months on the job, reportedly because he was upset over the trade of Miller. Surely the goalie was itching to leave. "Actually I loved it there," Miller says. "I became a part of the community, like family."

The Miller clan, from East Lansing, Mich., could rival the Sutters as hockey's first family. Ten Millers, including Ryan's father, Dean, played for Michigan State. Three cousins—Kip, Kelly and Kevin—played in the NHL, and Ryan's younger brother Drew, a Red Wings forward, won a Cup with the Ducks in 2007. Nobody else in the family played goal, but when Ryan was three he would sit in Dean's lap at Munn Arena and stare at the Spartans' goaltender, even when the puck was at the other end of the ice. "I remember thinking, Uh-oh, we might have a goalie here," Dean says.

When he was eight, Ryan begged his father to let him play goal during a Mite game in Santa Clara, Calif. Dean told Ryan he could be the goalie in the second game if he scored a hat trick in the first. Ryan scored three goals and added three assists. He never played forward again.

As the Spartans' goalie from 1999 to 2002, Miller set NCAA career records for shutouts (26) and save percentage (.941) that still stand. Because of his spindly legs, his teammates sarcastically named him Quadzilla. But Miller had deceptive strength. Michigan State's football team welcomed athletes from all sports to take part in the Farmer's Walk, a drill in which participants carry 115-pound weights in either hand from one end of the football field to the other and back. The walk was a test of balance, stamina and technique more than girth, and Miller—competing against linemen nearly twice his size—won several races.

He is a more patient goaltender than when he first entered the NHL, with near-clinical technique and an extraordinary ability to anticipate plays and never lose sight of pucks in traffic. Miller, who plays with his body so low to the ice that at times it appears as if he's preparing to do push-ups, has learned to be "sticky" in trapping a puck, letting it come to him instead of stabbing at it, and then angling his glove into his body so he can gather the puck before smothering it and freezing the action. He also doesn't challenge low, sharp-angle shots the way he used to. "I call it the dead zone, where guys sometimes shoot for rebounds," Miller says. "I'd leave my weak side exposed a lot. Now I keep my feet set and stay low." Whereas Stars goalie Tim Thomas makes sprawling saves with his elbows and backside, Miller strives for simplicity. "He's really boring," says Corey Hirsch, the Blues' goalie coach. "Usually if a goalie's making a spectacular save, it's because he's screwed something up, his positioning was off or he overcompensated. Ryan doesn't make highlight saves; he just keeps the puck out [of the net]."

His signature moment, of course, was his play in Vancouver in 2010, when he led an inexperienced Team USA to within a goal of its first gold medal in 30 years and was named the tournament MVP. After Canada beat Miller and the U.S. 3--2 on Sidney Crosby's overtime goal in the gold medal game, the goalie sent 139 personalized thank-you packages, one for each save he made at the Games. The packages included signed pucks for the family, coaches and supporters who had helped him through the years. He played one game at the Olympics in Sochi last month, a 5--1 win over Slovenia, as Jonathan Quick's backup. "He never complained about sitting," says Backes, a U.S. teammate. "He shared all these tidbits about other guys' tendencies. I thought, Man, wouldn't it be great to play with this guy?"

WE DON'T have an alpha male, a Toews, Crosby, Ovechkin," says Armstrong, the GM. "Ryan isn't here to be Superman." Though only the Blackhawks have scored more goals than St. Louis, the Blues' leading scorer, T.J. Oshie, has just 54 points (17 goals, 37 assists), which ranks 30th in the NHL. The Blues have no obvious weaknesses. They are tied for fourth in the league on the power play and ranked third in penalty killing, and they have the fewest giveaways of any team in the NHL. They also lead the league in goal differential, at +72.

Coach Ken Hitchcock preaches speed through the neutral zone, but St. Louis can also move up the ice with maddeningly elusive five-foot passes that tease forecheckers into thinking they can pick one off. They clog the middle, forcing foes, as Armstrong says, to "go through seaweed." Last summer the GM re-signed core blueliners Jay Bouwmeester, 30, Kevin Shattenkirk, 25, and Alex Pietrangelo, 24, the most unsung defensive trio in the league, to long-term contracts.

The Blues' swath through the conference is even more impressive given the league's left-coast-leaning balance of power. Through Sunday six of the NHL's top eight teams were in the West. When Canada won gold at the Sochi Olympics, its first 15 goals of the tournament came from players on Western Conference teams. "To win a Cup, especially to get through the debris in the West, you need a goalie who can steal a game or even a series," says Hitchcock. "That's Ryan."

Along with Miller, backup Brian Elliott, 28, will be a free agent this summer, and with young prospect Jake Allen, 23, waiting in the wings, one of the veterans is sure to be gone. Miller will be less likely to burn out in St. Louis than in Buffalo, where he faced 10 more shots a game. A playoff run could well influence his plans. "We're a baseball town," says Federko, now a Blues broadcaster, "but if the Blues won, imagine the thank-yous, the biggest celebration the city has ever seen. I'm sure Ryan can." Imagine the packages he'd send in return.

Given the franchise's historic lack of identity, St. Louis's nickname may as well be the Plaids or the Grays.

Whereas Stars goalie Tim Thomas makes sprawling saves with his elbows and backside, Miller strives for simplicity.

PHOTOPhotograph by DAVID E. KLUTHO Sports IllustratedTHE SKINNY Miller's angular frame makes him an unlikely franchise pillar, but few goaltenders have been more dependable or technically sound. PHOTOPhotograph by DAVID E. KLUTHO Sports IllustratedBLANK SLATE Miller, who has been playing in an unpainted mask since he was traded, exchanged a tumultuous situation in Buffalo for a team that revels in being all business. PHOTOPhotograph by DAVID E. KLUTHO Sports IllustratedCAPTAIN CRUNCH Backes (42) is a physical force in both the offensive and defensive zones for the Blues, who rank second in the NHL in scoring and lead the league in goal differential.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)