GLENDALE, Ariz. • A black SUV rolled into the Renaissance Hotel front entrance at mid-afternoon on Saturday and out popped a recognizable black stocking cap.
It’s Arizona, but Ryan Miller is not often seen without it.
Blues captain David Backes was the first to greet Miller, shaking the stick hand of the netminder that the team believes will upgrade its chances of winning a Stanley Cup.
“Less than a week ago, we were having lunch with our families right off the Black Sea in a little Russian cafe,” Miller said to a reporter. “And here we are in Phoenix, Arizona, a half a world away, and we get to play together. It’s pretty funny how the world works.”
Less than a week after the Olympics, and less than 24 hours after learning that his 12-year run in Buffalo had officially concluded, Miller began an adjustment period in his career he hopes will be sped up by his familiarity with several Blues. He played for Team USA with Backes, T.J. Oshie and Kevin Shattenkirk and in Buffalo with Derek Roy and Jordan Leopold.
“You go from preparing to play a game to (Buffalo coach) Ted Nolan telling us we were not going to be dressing,” Miller said. “I was a little anxious for a while trying to figure out what exactly was transpiring. But I’m very happy to have it end up being St. Louis, a team that I have a lot respect for the way they play. I’m excited to be playing with a lot of these guys. Everything I’m hearing, it’s a great group of guys who play for each other.”
Miller, who was acquired along with winger Steve Ott Friday in a trade that sent a package including Jaroslav Halak and Chris Stewart to the Sabres, will have little time to unpack his bags. He has already been penciled into the Blues’ lineup Sunday night at 7 when the club wraps up a three-game road trip against Phoenix at Jobing.com Arena.
“It’s going to be interesting to see,” Miller said. “I just want to get comfortable so that I can play to my highest level. So it’s just going to be getting to know the calls on the ice, getting to know the systems better, the tendencies. I’m going to try and get my game to the point where I’m familiar with everybody and everything that’s going on ... just settle in, so that I can compete at a high level.”
Those who have played with and against the former Vezina Trophy winner in the past don’t believe it will take long.
Miller, drafted by Buffalo in the fifth round of the 1999 NHL draft, and Roy, taken by the Sabres three years later, have known each other since their days with the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League. Roy remembers witnessing the early signs of Miller’s competitive nature.
“We were in Houston one time and it was the pre-game skate,” he said. “Instead of doing the drill we were supposed to be doing, we were coming in real close and taking slap shots on him. We scored a couple of goals and guys were hooting and hollering. It got to a point where ‘Millsie’ wasn’t too happy. Guys stopped hooting and hollering when they saw the stick thrown into the stands.”
Miller laughed when reminded of the story.
“I’m trying to get ready for the game and they’re supposed to be shooting from the outside,” Miller said. “They’re doing back-door, tap-in type stuff, finding open nets and then celebrating. After about a couple of minutes of that, yeah, my stick went about 20 rows up. I had already broken a stick earlier in the drills, so I had to go to the locker room and get another one. The boys all thought I stormed off but I came back with another and got back in net. I’m competitive. That’s what it was about. I was also 23 years old. I’ve matured a little bit in the last 10 years.”
In a dozen seasons in the Buffalo organization, Miller eventually established himself as one of the NHL’s elite goalies, leading the Sabres to the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2006 and 2007. He is 284-186-56 with a 2.60 and a .916 save percentage in the regular season. He’s 25-22 with a 2.46 GAA and .917 in his postseason career.
Miller has proved capable of the jaw-dropping save at times, but his practice is more predicated on technique.
“I’m a pretty calm goaltender, probably not the most flashy guy in the nets,” he said. “If it’s too flashy, I’m doing it wrong. I like to think that I can have a settling effect for a team. I just want to let the guys know that everything is OK, and I’m going to try to take care of business back there.”
Ott, who played with Miller for 1½ years in Buffalo, said: “He’s thinking analytically all the time and he puts so much effort into it. His demeanor when he came in this year, even with all the (trade) speculation, he came in with that same demeanor and he’s been phenomenal the whole year and rightfully so with what he puts into the game.”
As long as the rumors had been circulating in St. Louis, regarding Miller’s availability, they had been swirling in Buffalo even longer. A year ago, he submitted a list of seven teams to the Sabres to which he could not be traded. The Blues were not on that list.
“I definitely thought (St. Louis) was a good option for me,” Miller said. “I was trying to be really open to anything that was going to come my way and be professional and be ready to play. I was kind of thinking about the possibility of St. Louis and now that it’s happened, it’s gone through, I’m really excited to be here. I do think it’s a good fit.”
Miller is aware of the hype that’s been created leading up to his arrival.
“I hope I do give the people of St. Louis a reason to think kindly upon the way I play,” he said. “It’s an exciting time for me. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was a little bit anxious, a little bit nervous. I spent 12 years in Buffalo and have a lot of history there, people remember a lot of good things ... and I’m starting from scratch here. Also, it’s starting with a team that has a lot of high expectations.”
But the Blues don’t want Miller to feel like those expectations fall on his shoulders alone.
“Ryan is an experienced guy playing in high-pressured situations and I think he can really help us,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. “I don’t think anybody questions he’s a heck of a goalie. But it’s also our job to not just sit there and count on him. To say ‘OK, everybody have a free look at our goalie now.’ We’ve got to play better in front of him to give him a chance to show the things that he can show.”
A new era in the Blues' net begins Sunday.
“It’s going to be weird to put on a (Blues’) jersey the first time,” Miller said. “The colors are the same, but it’s been 12 years ... it’s going to be a little bit surreal, but I’m looking forward to it.”
He shouldn’t be the only one.
“When you have a guy like Ryan Miller in net,” Ott said, “I think you guys are going to be blown away by what you guys see.”