If there has been a silver lining in this dreary season for the Buffalo Sabres, it has been Ryan Miller. The former Vezina Trophy winner is having a rather remarkable year between the pipes, which has kept the Sabres in a lot of games they probably wouldn't have been otherwise. Perhaps more importantly, however, is Miller's play has kept his trade value relatively high, which can only further aid the Sabres' rebuild.
Miller is also playing for his next contract. He will become an unrestricted free agent after this season and odds are he will hit the open market. That obviously will impact his trade value in a more negative fashion that his play, but the veteran goaltender should still be sought after as the season progresses. It's not often you can add a former Vezina winner in the middle of a season.
That said, the trade market for goaltenders is often much different from position players. As Sean McIndoe recently broke down over at Grantland.com, goalies have brought in varying returns, often not incredible hauls.
The trades of Semyon Varlamov to Colorado and more recently Jonathan Bernier to Toronto and Cory Schneider to New Jersey are examples of fairly large returns for goaltenders, though none were really blockbuster hauls.
Washington got a first- and a conditional second-round pick for Varlamov, while Los Angeles got Matt Frattin, Ben Scrivens and a second-rounder. The Canucks traded Schneider for New Jersey's first-round pick at the last draft.
Schneider was the most proven of the bunch at the time of being dealt, but none have Miller's track record. However, at 33, he is older than all of them. Another key difference is those were all offseason deals, where teams didn't feel the heat of Stanley Cup contention as freshly as teams in the hunt will this year. So that is a more favorable factor for the Sabres.
Miller's return may be questionable at this point, but Sabres general manager Darcy Regier has managed to get some sensational value when offloading high-end talent of late. You have to expect him to drive a hard bargain. Some GM might be willing to bite if he has visions of Lord Stanley dancing in his head.
What makes Miller so intriguing this year is that despite how bad the team around him has been, he has maintained a high level of competitiveness. It's obvious that despite what should be an awfully frustrating situation, Miller hasn't quit in any game and keeps saying all the right things in the media. He's not often one to bite his tongue when something is on his mind.
It's all showing up in the on-ice product.
It might be that looming contract that's helping with the motivation, but Miller has been one of the better goalies in the league this season despite a 2-10-0 record in his starts. His .919 save percentage is above his career average and second only to the .929 of his Vezina Trophy season in 2009-10. He's putting up that number despite the fact that he is seeing an average of 38 shots per game, which far exceeds his career norms.
Breaking it down further to his even-strength save percentage and shots-against per 60 minutes, Miller has a .914 save percentage and is seeing an average of 31 shots per game at five-on-five. So he's performing well under an abnormally large work load.
In addition to an uptick in trade value, Miller is also vastly raising his profile for Team USA candidacy for the Olympics. He very well could end up as the starter after most everyone already penciled in Kings netminder Jonathan Quick for the top job.
At this point, among American starting goalies in the NHL, Miller trails only Tampa Bay's Ben Bishop's .928 save percentage. Meanwhile, Quick has a paltry .901 save percentage, last among American starters.
Miller has the advantage of Olympic experience, as he was the best goaltender at the 2010 Games in Vancouver. And considering how he has competed under the direst of circumstances in Buffalo, he could be refreshed by the opportunity to play on an Olympic gold-medal contender.
That competitiveness under duress is another reason his trade value is probably trending up. Imagine what he might be able to accomplish for a contender if these are the kind of numbers he's putting up for the Sabres.
Miller has only been to the playoffs four times in his 11 NHL seasons, but his postseason numbers are a tick better than his regular-season career marks -- a .917 save percentage and 2.47 goals-against average in 47 playoff appearances. He hasn't been to the postseason since 2010-11, so you have to think he's hungry for the opportunity.
While the Sabres can enjoy the fact that Miller gives even them a chance every night, they also have to be looking at what they can get out of the soon-to-be free agent and biggest remaining star on the roster.
The Sabres' rebuild has been mainly through the draft, but with two picks already for next year's first round, the club should be looking for players that are either already proven in the NHL or very close to being NHL ready.
That could be a young top prospect or young player with some NHL time under his belt already. Those may be a little harder to come by with a fairly limited buyer's market for goalies at this point.
Here's a look at two potential trade partners, whether or not they should even go after Miller and some potential pieces Regier should aim for in return.
The Blues seem to keep popping up as one of the primary potential destinations for Miller. With Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, the Blues are off to a fine start to the season with a 10-2-2 record, good for third in the top-heavy Central Division.
The question surrounding Halak and Elliott is can one of them lead the Blues on a run? There seems to be less certainty about that, but at the same time, the duo has performed fairly well for one of the league's best teams.
Should the Blues go after Miller? Both Halak and Elliott have put up solid numbers. Halak's .911 save percentage is probably a bit lower than St. Louis would like, while Elliott has collected a .925 save percentage in some limited action. To me, there's not enough separation between Miller and this tandem to make overpaying for a rental worth it. The Blues have a terrific defense and if they get even slightly above-average goaltending, they should be a Stanley Cup threat.
Who should Sabres target? If the Blues do bite, they don't have a ton of pieces to offer Buffalo. A first-round pick in 2014 is likely to be late and this isn't as deep a draft as last summer's.
If the Sabres want to keep building a solid base of prospects, Dmitrij Jaskin would be an ideal candidate. The 6-foot-3, 198-pound wing had 99 points in the QMJHL last year and could be a high-end scorer. It's tough to see the Blues moving a guy like him for a rental, but there's not a ton in the system that should really pique the Sabres' interest, so asking for the moon might be the only way to make something work.
Buffalo, which would likely look to Jhonas Enroth as the goalie of the post-Miller era, could also seek a package that could include Jake Allen from the Blues. He was solid in spot duty last season and would be another tough sell, but again, don't anticipate Regier settling for a light package for Miller.
Already trade partners with the Sabres in the Matt Moulson-for-Thomas Vanek deal, the Islanders are in serious need of goaltending help. Evgeni Nabakov's performance last postseason and a sub-.900 save percentage this year are good enough reasons for GM Garth Snow to keep his eyes open.
Having already dished the first-round pick, which the Islanders have a choice to defer to 2015 if it ends up a top-10 pick in 2014, the Sabres should eye the Islanders' rather rich prospect pool for possibilities if there is any deal to be made.
Should the Islanders go after Miller? It wouldn't be a bad idea. He would be an obvious upgrade over what they have and perhaps the Isles could even sway him to sign an extension with the move to Brooklyn on the horizon. They need help in net and have needed it for a long time.
Who should Sabres target? A big credit to Snow is the fact that he has built a deep pool of prospects, some of which are beginning to matriculate to the big club.
The Sabres added some key cornerstone-type defensemen in Nikita Zadorov and Rasmus Ristolainen last draft, and promising Jake McCabe is also in the pipeline. The Islanders have some real depth at D within the system. If the Sabres could somehow get one of Griffin Reinhart or Ryan Pulock into some type of package, it becomes an easy deal to pull the trigger on. They probably wouldn't be easy to pry away from Snow, though. The Sabres could aim slightly lower and come away with a solid prospect if they targeted Scott Mayfield, who signed with the club last season and is currently playing in the AHL.
There's also the option of looking at some more NHL-ready talent at forward like centers Brock Nelson and/or Anders Lee, two players who may be more physically ready for the league and have a good track record of production.
It's not easy to figure out where the Sabres could go with Miller with such a limited market. As recently as two weeks ago, Regier said it was mostly quiet on the Miller front. The Sabres have to move him, though, and while his trade value might not be at its highest point, a goalie of Miller's caliber should at least bring in some valuable pieces for the Sabres to continue their arduous rebuild.