Given all that happened for the Buffalo Sabres during the shortened 2012/13 NHL season, it ended on a fairly high note.
Granted, they’d dug themselves such a deep hole that it proved too much to emerge from, missing the playoffs for the second year in a row and raising plenty of questions. Still, their play down the stretch was something of a positive. They’d put together a nice run despite having traded away veteran contributors Jason Pominville, Robyn Regehr, and Jordan Leopold.
More importantly than that, the once-left-for-dead Jhonas Enroth rose from the grave (or the bench) and turned in such a tremendous stretch that it’s hard to believe A.) this is the same guy Lindy Ruff had superglued to the end of the bench, never to see the ice again and B.) the Sabres now have goaltending options that don’t read “Options A-Z: Ryan Miller”.
The 24-year-old Swedish netminder had cup-of-coffee stints with the Sabres in 2009/10 and 10/11 before getting 26 games under his belt last season and another 11 this year. He’s struggled with consistency but there are flashes of brilliance in his 5’10” 166lb frame.
A few caveats: yes, “small sample size” and all of that but we’ll get there. The other tidbit is that Enroth is a restricted free agent. Given that he was a guy making $675k and struggled immensely last season with the exception of the stretch run, I’m going to venture a guess that the Sabres should be able to re-sign him with relative ease.
Unless they’re really trying to cash in on the obvious potential and the nine games at the end of last season, which would be immensely ballsy and/or stupid (mostly the latter), they should be able to get him for less than a million for at least this season. Anything after that is up to the negotiating parties to figure out.
Still, how does he compare with Buffalo’s incumbent superstar Miller?
How They Stack Up
Now, the obvious off-the-top-of-your-head comparison of the two is that Miller is consistently very good and Enroth is largely unproven. Which is a completely accurate assessment of things.
Miller sees huge chunks of games and minutes and, aside from his anomaly of a Vezina Trophy season, his numbers have remained at about the same level for the last few years. You know what you’re getting out of him.
Enroth is less consistent for obvious reasons. One: he only has 50 games played in his career. Miller exceeds that in his average season. Two: the team’s style differs between the two goaltenders. With Miller, extra chances can be taken because the team knows he will generally bail them out. With Enroth, that certainty isn’t there and the structure of the defense, as well as its role in the offense zone, changes.
The Numbers: Part 1
Die by the Blade did a fantastic side-by-side comparison of their head-to-head numbers :
2009-10, Miller’s Vezina
What can we take from that?
Both are very good at even strength but surprisingly, it is Enroth who is better. The difference lies with the special teams, where Miller is noticably better than Enroth in just about each season.
Part of the reason the penalty kill has been so bad, especially this season, is because Miller wasn’t very good and Enroth was worse. Expecting them to be league-worst again isn’t fair and a regression back to the mean should take place so those numbers should theoretically go up but Miller clearly is the better of the two at keeping the puck out of their net on special teams, especially shorthanded.
The Numbers: Part 2
This is where things get interesting. Enroth wasn’t so much as an after-thought when Lindy Ruff was around and it would be interesting to find out just what the dynamic was between the two given the night and day performances by Enroth.
Let’s take a look at his numbers under Ruff and after the firing:
After Ruff Firing
Before Ruff Firing
Granted, almost a fifth the sample size but the jump is huge. If you break it down further, he had seven starts down the stretch and posted a 1.55 GAA, .953 save percentage, and a shutout while stopping 224 of 235 shots. He had three games where he surrendered just one goal as well.
If you extrapolate his numbers — and I know extrapolation is only as good as guessing, really — over Miller’s number of games played last year, his numbers are MVP level: 40GP, 1.64 GAA, .941 save percentage. Those numbers realistically regress towards the mean but even a little bit of a drop and those are incredible numbers.
The small sample size is one thing but just watching him play, you could see a world of difference. Enroth was sharp throughout and downright incredible for large chunks of time. He looked like a whole different goaltender.
Take this save against Winnipeg during a feverish chase for the playoffs:
[youtube width=”600″ height=”450″video_id=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hfi_cxgbppw”]
He wasn’t making routine saves under Lindy, let alone ones like that.
What Does This Mean For 2013/14?
One huge caveat applies here: if Ryan Miller is traded before the start of next season.
Speculation, which is really a bunch of nothing until something actually happens, has Miller being dealt at the draft. For a team that’s attempting a rebuild even if it’s not directly saying that, moving a big asset like Miller for picks and young players is the way to go. If he’s still around next season, he starts. It’s just that simple.
But we’re looking at a scenario in which Miller is gone and Enroth is handed the keys to the car or at the very least given them as part of a platoon. And Jhonas Enroth is ready.
Sure, there isn’t a lot to go on. Yes, it would be a risk but a calculated one. If you’re the Sabres, you’re banking on your still-developing 24-year-old goaltender building on his hot finish to the season and taking it into next year.
Not only that but if you’re without Miller, you’re expecting to be a fringe playoff team in a best-case scenario. Letting Enroth get the bulk of the work on a young team gives him more experience, the team a look at what it has on a full-time basis, and probably good draft position to build towards the future.
It may not be up to Jhonas Enroth to determine whether or not he’s ready for the big time but if Ryan Miller and the Sabres part way, the franchise will be entrusting him to keep the crease clean.
Enroth will stand tall. Well, as tall as his 5’10” frame will allow.
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