Note: This is part one of Sabres 101's three-part season preview. Parts two and three will appear Monday and Tuesday.
Any hope the Buffalo Sabres have of ending a two-year playoff drought begin between the pipes.
Ryan Miller had the worst year of his NHL career in 2013. He went 17-17-5, the first time he finished below .500 in a full season. He also posted a career-low 2.81 goals-against average and a relatively low .915 save percentage.
An anemic defense definitely played a part in that. Buffalo allowed a league-worst 33.5 shots per game last season; St. Louis led the league by allowing 10 fewer shots per game. But Miler allowed more weak goals than he typically has and was not the game-changing presence he's come to be known as.
In spite of rampant trade rumors over the summer, General Manager Darcy Regier said the trade window for Miller has closed for now. So the 33-year-old will be the sure-fire No. 1 netminder to open the year and collect his $6.25 million salary.
He showed he still had some fire this preseason by getting into a fight with Toronto's Jonathan Bernier on the ice. And he said again over the summer he's open to re-signing with Buffalo next summer. But with Miller, Thomas Vanek and Steve Ott all entering free agency after this season, the team and fans want to avoid another Briere-Drury fiasco and see them leave for nothing. So a trade is entirely possible if contract talks don't progress.
But assuming he stays, Miller will be backed up by Jhonas Enroth, who signed a two-year deal this offseason as the heir apparent to the No. 1 job. The 25-year-old won the IIHF World Championship for Sweden this past summer and went 4-4-1 for Buffalo in 2013 with a 2.60 GAA.
In the event of trade or injury, Matt Hackett will step in. He begins the season in Rochester but looked good for Buffalo after being acquired in last season's Jason Pominville trade. The 23-year-old won three games for the Amerks at the end of last season and will be their No. 1 netminder after David Leggio was released. He has 13 games of NHL experience, going 3-7-0 with a 2.63 GAA.
Coach Ron Rolston has said Miller will carry less of a load this season than former coach Lindy Ruff made him carry in years past – especially with the Olympics this February. But all indications are that Enroth will carry even more of the load with Miller's nearly inevitable departure.
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