BY BOB HUNT
Daily Sports Writer
Published September 2, 2002
Michigan State goaltender and frequent Wolverine-killer Ryan Miller has decided to forgo his senior season and sign a two-year deal with the Buffalo Sabres.
In his three years in East Lansing, Miller put together one of the best careers for a goalie in college hockey history. The East Lansing native became a national story during the 2000-01 season when he set the NCAA single-season save percentage record of .950 and set CCHA single-season records for goals against average and shutouts. He also became just the second goaltender to capture the Hobey Baker Award.
While Miller did not match those numbers this past season due to a weakened Michigan State defense, he still led the CCHA in goals against average and was named a Hobey Baker finalist.
Drafted in the fifth round of the 1999 NHL entry draft by the Sabres, Miller was sought after by the organization throughout the summer. Rick Comley - who left Northern Michigan to replace legendary coach Ron Mason - had talked with Miller throughout the summer and had been pretty sure he was going to leave school for the past month.
"I kind of felt it all along," Comley said.
The biggest hurdle for the Sabres in signing Miller was the value of his contract. While the terms of the contract were not disclosed, Comley hoped Miller would only go for what he deserved.
"I didn't want him to go for less than he was worth," Comley said.
Miller's signing was such a big event in Buffalo that the Sabers held a press conference at a Buffalo area golf course where the club was holding an alumni tournament, which is very unusual for a fifth-round draft pick.
Although Miller's signing was big news, the former Spartan is likely going to have to spend significant time for the Sabres' American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate in Rochester. Both current starter Martin Biron and backup Mika Noronen excelled in Rochester before making the Sabres roster.
With Miller off to the professional ranks, the Wolverines will now face an inexperienced goaltender in their four (at least) upcoming games with the Spartans this season. While Comley has yet to be on the ice with Miller's hopeful successors, the battle for the starting job looks to be between last season's backup Matt Migliacco - a 6-foot-5 sophomore from Wyandotte that played just one game last season - and incoming freshman Justin Tobe from Farmington.
For the next couple of weeks before the Spartans begin official practices, Comley will be allowed to go out on the ice with the team once a week with four players at a time, which will allow him to evaluate both Wyandotte and Tobe.
Comley expects that he will use both goalkeepers throughout the first couple months of the season and will likely not have one No. 1 goaltender until at least Christmas.
So in the meantime, Comley hopes that the defense can step up and make the new goaltenders' jobs easier. After looking at last season's games, Comley feels that the defense could do more.
"They relied on (Miller) too much," Comley said.