Strauss: Blues go all-in with Miller deal

2014-03-03T00:50:00Z 2015-01-13T16:30:04Z Strauss: Blues go all-in with Miller dealJoe Strauss jstrauss@post-dispatch.com stltoday.com

So the Blues acquired the missing piece, the difference-maker who shall elevate them from young postseason novices to Stanley Cup contenders. A position marked by a low floor all of a sudden offers a three-story ceiling.

That was the story when the Blues traded for Jaroslav Halak in June 2010.

The local narrative held that the Blues snookered the Montreal Canadiens for Halak, who had almost single-handedly taken a team given little playoff credibility to the Eastern Conference finals.

Those provincial Canadiens opted to hold on to Carey Price, a British Columbia native, over Halak.

Silly Canadiens, we chuckled.

Halak, of course, is now a former Blues goalie, traded Thursday to a rebuilding organization that will probably flip him to another team within the next 72 hours. Halak appeared in exactly two postseason games here. He was never goalie of record for a series. (Media timeout: For those keeping track, Price recently graduated to national hero up north as starting goalie for Team Canada’s gold-medal entry. Halak had to be rescued from net before the end of outmanned Slovakia's second game.)

Blues general manager Doug Armstrong insisted last month Halak was a top 10 NHL goalie, that he wasn’t frantic to find a replacement, that the Blues could be a Stanley Cup team with Jaro in net.

Welcome to St. Louis, Ryan Miller.

The narrative now swerves through a chicane. If the Blues had a top 10 goalie before, they’ve got a top five net-minder now. If the Blues were becoming more isolated in publicly insisting they could win a Cup with Halak, they’ve got plenty of company insisting they can get there with Miller, who offered a beacon of excellence within the woebegone Buffalo Sabres roster.

Miller, 33, has never played in a Stanley Cup final. Indeed, Miller hasn’t been beyond the playoffs’ first round since 2007. But we’re assured the pending free agent has the chops to propel the Blues to at least the Western Conference finals and perhaps to the franchise’s first championship.

This is an all-in move. There are no subtle hues here. The narrative is simple: win now.

The Blues sacrificed two draft choices, including a first-rounder, Halak and enigmatic former 30-goal scorer Chris Stewart for Miller and veteran forward Steve Ott, a grinder who previously played for Armstrong and coach Ken Hitchcock in Dallas. Ott also is a pending unrestricted free agent.

The Blues are to be applauded for effort. They’ve replaced what they privately considered a question mark with a bulwark. Despite coming off consecutive shutout losses, they’re widely described as the chic team to beat.

Halak accumulated better percentages than Miller this season while playing behind arguably the league’s deepest defense. Halak faced 409 fewer shots in only 145 fewer minutes played than Miller. Halak faced a shot every 2.23 minutes; Miller saw one every 1.69 minutes. Translation: Halak faced an average 26.9 shots per 60 minutes while Miller confronted 35.5 per complete game. This is roughly the difference between smoking a stogie beneath a veranda at Cabo and dodging a string of lit bottle rockets.

Miller played with new teammates Derek Roy and Jordan Leopold in Buffalo and alongside Kevin Shattenkirk, David Backes and T.J. Oshie in Sochi. As the Blues tried to defuse speculation prior to the trade, we were frequently told the importance of familiarity and communication on ice. The guess here is we won’t hear that song again. Miller is a likable figure. Truth to tell, Jaro’s personality chafed some well before his heated exchange with Hitchcock became news last postseason.

There appears little to nit-pick here. The Blues packaged players they no longer wanted for a star-quality goalie and a forward whom hockey types say plays with “sandpaper.”

They’ve become more consistent in net and more provocative up front. The money is a virtual wash.

Armstrong insists the club wants to keep Miller for its future, though no one will say whether that applies should Miller seek a five-year deal with an average annual value pushing $6 million.

The Blues just transacted the last 12 months’ most significant move among St. Louis’ professional sports franchises. It is akin to the Cardinals’ July 2009 trade for left fielder Matt Holliday. Holliday joined a 91-win team that secured its division. Only if the Cardinals reached the ‘09 World Series or Holliday re-signed as a free agent could the deal have been called a success. The Cardinals got swept from the Division Series by the Los Angeles Dodgers, but Holliday eventually re-signed and became a core player on a World Championship team.

To extend the poker parlance, the Blues have “shoved.” They are acting like a power franchise that perceives its window open and seeks to open it wider. In reality, they are a talented team backed by precarious finances. Whether or not the Blues are comfortable being judged entirely by postseason performance is irrelevant. It’s reality. Going bust in the first or second round is no longer excusable.

When Tom Stillman and his local investment group purchased the Blues they inherited a frustrating history as well as a talented current core. The franchise spent much of the last two months saying publicly they were fine with Halak before making what Armstrong calls an “incremental’’ upgrade. Extending the logic, Miller should make this team not only a player for the Cup, but a favorite.

Recent events have reminded us that narratives are entertaining but also open to interpretation.

The Sabres asked Miller to carry them to something approaching mediocrity. The Blues have heavily invested in Miller to take them into June. It can’t get more real than that.

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