Decision Time For Spartans’ Miller

There’s no question that Michigan State’s Ryan Miller wants to conclude the 2002-03 hockey season by playing in Buffalo’s HSBC Arena.

All he has to decide is which team’s uniform he wants to wear.

With top players and multi-million dollar contracts moving around the NHL’s free agent market in the weeks ahead, the Buffalo Sabres, who drafted Miller in the fifth round of the 1999 Entry Draft, may attempt to sign him.

But if the Sabres can’t muster the money to convince Miller to leave his hometown school a year early, he will certainly hope to end up in Buffalo by the end of the year – with his Spartan teammates at the 2003 Frozen Four.

The Buffalo News reported before the NHL Draft last month that Miller was “strongly considering not returning to Michigan State for his senior season.”

A Michigan State media relations official said Monday, however, that there is “no new information to report” from the team’s standpoint.

“Ryan is currently working out with the MSU hockey team in its summer program and will continue to do so unless his status changes,” the MSU official said.

Michigan State coach Rick Comley declined to comment on the matter, and the Sabres are remaining similarly tight-lipped.

“We’re not going to comment on Ryan Miller because he’s still in college,” said a Buffalo media relations spokesperson. “We’re not sure if he wants to turn pro. It’s really up to him.”

The News reported in April that Miller would most likely return on Michigan State for his senior season, and since then Miller turned some heads — and undoubtedly raised his price tag — with an outstanding performance at the IIHF World Championships this spring.

With questions still swirling around the Sabres’ ownership situation, Miller told The News, “They need to get their affairs in order and then we can go from there.”

Beyond that, Miller’s status as a college player gives him considerable bargaining power over the Sabres in contract talks. That, coupled with the possibility that the Sabres may spend substantial free agent dollars to re-sign their own players, may suggest that Buffalo will have a hard time putting together an appealing offer for Miller.

If Miller does decide to leave Michigan State, his successor will likely be Justin Tobe, who has reportedly taken extra courses to graduate from Farmington High School this month, one year ahead of schedule. Tobe, however, hasn’t committed to Michigan State yet and reportedly won’t do so this year unless Miller leaves.

Tobe posted a 2.34 goals against average, .914 save percentage and two shutouts this past regular season while playing for the NAHL’s Compuware Ambassadors, who wrapped up their second Junior A national championship in four years in May.

“If there’s any kid who can follow Ryan Miller and deal with the pressure and expectations, I think it’s Justin Tobe,” Ambassadors coach Todd Watson told The Lansing State Journal this spring. “It’s because of his skills, mental makeup and confidence.”

And while Tobe may be very talented, following in Miller’s footsteps would be a difficult task to say the least, said Ferris State coach Bob Daniels.

“Tobe is a very good goaltender, but — even as good as he is — he’s not Ryan Miller right now,” Daniels said. “He’s darn good, and no one’s going to say that his career won’t be as stellar as Miller’s, but coming in his first year he won’t be as good as Ryan Miller is right now.

“There’s no question that losing impact players of [Miller’s] ilk would have an effect on your season,” Daniels continued. “That said, they have other good players. However, there’s no denying that at some time in the season that’s going to cost you a game or two.”

Daniels rotated freshmen Mike Brown and John DeCaro last season after Phil Osaer, a second team All-CCHA selection behind Miller in 2000-01, left the team last August, shortly before he was to begin his senior year.

Without a veteran goaltender, the Bulldogs struggled at times last season, enduring losing streaks of three games or more on five occasions.

“Those freshmen stepped up and played well, but it wasn’t until partway through last season that our players started to get comfortable,” Daniels said. “Goaltending does have an effect on the confidence of the other players.”

Ohio State coach John Markell agreed.

“You don’t go anywhere without a goaltender, and you’re going to have off days as a freshman,” he said. “On some nights, [a freshman] might not be there to provide that calming effect.”

And as Comley waits on Tobe, who waits on Miller, who waits on the Sabres, it’s a safe bet that there won’t be much of a “calming effect” in East Lansing this summer.

Reach Jon Paul Morosi at [email protected]