By John Vogl
Ryan Miller, one of the most eloquent speakers in the hockey world, fumbled for the right words. Just traded from the only team he’d ever known, the goaltender had emotions whizzing though him faster than any slap shot ever could.
“I kind of figured this is what would happen,” said a tear-fighting Miller, who had thought long about a possible trade but could never truly prepare for it. “It just kind of hits you all at once.”
With that, one of the two best goalies in Buffalo’s history cut off his comments and prepared to join his new team in St. Louis.
The Sabres and Blues pulled off a blockbuster for the ages Friday night, a five-player deal that could result in two first-round draft picks coming to Buffalo. Sabres captain Steve Ott joined Miller in the trade. Buffalo acquired goaltender Jaroslav Halak, forward Chris Stewart, prospect William Carrier, a first-round pick in 2015 and a conditional selection.
If the Blues reach the Western Conference finals or re-sign Miller, Buffalo gets the Blues’ first-round pick this June. The worst the pick can be is a third-round selection in 2016. Buffalo retained a small portion of Miller’s salary to help the Blues get under the cap.
“We’re happy with what we achieved,” Sabres General Manager Tim Murray said in First Niagara Center. “We were extremely happy with the deal. If you’re happy with it, make it.”
Miller was supposed to play for the Sabres against San Jose, but he was gone long before Buffalo completed a 4-2 victory. One of the goalie’s habits is to lean on his stick at the Sabres’ bench and meditate before his starts. When he didn’t show up for the ritual, it was clear a trade was imminent.
Ott was kicking around a soccer ball with his teammates when coach Ted Nolan summoned him to a back room to tell him he wasn’t playing and on the verge of being traded.
Though Ott and Miller are going to the same team, Murray said it started out as two separate transactions. The talks started before the Olympic break, and once they accelerated at the same pace it turned into a package deal.
“I am very excited for an opportunity to have a new adventure, to have a new opportunity,” Miller said. “I have a strong sense that they have a very special team.”
Ott, who came to Buffalo in July 2012 in a deal that featured Derek Roy going to Dallas, is reunited with Blues GM Doug Armstrong and coach Ken Hitchcock. They held the same roles with the Stars.
“I’m really excited to have this opportunity with St. Louis,” Ott said. “My dream and my biggest goal as a hockey player is to have an opportunity and to have a chance at a Stanley Cup. I feel they have a great team.”
Because of the trade’s conditions, Sabres fans certainly hope so.
Though they didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to Miller, the fans rose to their feet and cheered a highlight video with nine minutes left in the game.
“I’ve basically grown up here,” said the 33-year-old Miller, who was drafted by the Sabres in 1999 and debuted in 2002. “I’m obviously forever going to be tied to this part of the world, and I hope to continue that relationship as best as I can moving forward.”
Halak and Stewart are scheduled to arrive in Buffalo today for their physicals. Like Miller, Halak is a pending unrestricted free agent. The 28-year-old Olympian from Slovakia is 24-9-4 with a 2.23 goals-against average and .917 save percentage.
Stewart has 15 goals and 26 points in 58 games. The 26-year-old scored 28 times with Colorado in 2009-10.
Carrier, a 19-year-old drafted by the Blues in the second round in 2013, has 17 goals and 56 points in 59 games in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
“A couple high picks, a couple players that can play for us right now and help us,” Murray said.
The lingering question is whether Halak and Stewart will be around past Wednesday’s trade deadline. Halak could be moved to a contender looking for goaltending help. The Ottawa Senators, Murray’s former team, have a strong interest in acquiring Stewart.
“If somebody feels he’s a missing piece, then I have to talk about it, and the same with the goalie,” Murray said. “I’ve said all along that I’m just going to be in the wake of the GM that wants one of our players. If they feel that we have a missing piece to their puzzle, then we’ll be involved.
“There’s been lots of interest shown. There are lots of guys that teams have shown interest on, so I’m just listening.”
Armstrong was a member of Canada’s Olympic staff, and the Blues’ GM called Murray a few times from Russia just to make sure the Sabres hadn’t forgotten about the trade talks.
“That was the team that showed the most interest, for sure,” Murray said.
The conditional pick took a long time to iron out – it’s said to include up to 20 conditions that make it range from a first- to a third-round pick – but the big pieces were in place for a while.
“It’s amazing,” Ott said. “This guy right here is the best goalie in the world. I’ve played with some good ones. I’ve seen some good ones. I’m amazed with his focus, his preparation. Since I came in, I was just blown away with what his mind-set has been, even with the speculation from the summertime that was going on.
“He came in so professional and has been our best player, our MVP here in Buffalo in a tough season with a 30th-place team.”
Ott and Miller are now part of the team tied for second in the NHL, and they hope to help the Blues fulfill their goals.
“It’s humbling and flattering that they would make that kind of move to bring us in with the intention of giving them help to push for the Stanley Cup,” Miller said. “It feels good that they think highly of us, and we’re excited for the opportunity there.
“We’ll compete as hard as we can to live up to the trade. I’m taking this extremely serious already. It’s exciting and hopefully going to be a situation where it clicks and we have some fun.”
Despite the ups and downs on the ice, Miller made it clear his time in Buffalo was fun, too.
“I’m just thankful to everybody in Buffalo,” Miller said, “friends, fans and the organization from the top down.”
taggedRyan Miller | Steve Ott