"[Ryan] Miller is the $6 million face of the franchise, but you wonder if his head is elsewhere, maybe with his wife out in Los Angeles."
That quote was buried in a Jerry Sullivan article from last month. Now Jerry might have been trolling for a reaction (I know, it's a preposterous thought) or maybe just cracking a joke, but it's an easily accessible soundbite so I'll use Sully's quote here. The reality is that he's far from the only person to suggest the notion.
And it's a notion that makes zero sense to me.
To some, it's simply an easy joke to make. "We used to have an elite goalie, then he went and got married and now Noureen DeWulf screwed his head up. Damn you, Noureen!" People chuckle, nobody takes it too seriously, and everyone goes about their business as usual. Just another way to make light-hearted conversation about the Buffalo Sabres (because, God knows, we could use a little more light-hearted Sabres-related topics these days. Say, when's the last time we won two games in a row, anyway?)
But there are others who... well, this is no joking matter. They're dead serious about this. Why, you don't fall to 42nd out of 45 eligible goaltenders in goals-against average because you're simply having a bad season; something more sinister must be at play! That wretched, evil succubus has destroyed poor Ryan Miller! Let's gather the mob and run her out of town! Prepare the angry tweets! Where did I put my pitchfork?
I'm not going to pretend to be a psychologist or a relationship expert here, and I certainly don't understand anything about Ryan Miller, his wife, or their marriage either. So I'm going to approach this in the only manner I can: attempting to apply basic common sense to the situation.
Basic common sense demands that I ask the question: if Miller's poor play was a result of being distracted by his relationship, why would it be happening now?
More logically, wouldn't it have been a bigger distraction during wedding preparations? (For you unmarried folk, believe me when I tell you that wedding planning will put your relationship to the test like nothing else.) Wouldn't it have been a bigger distraction during the formative stages of the relationship, which is commonly believed to be sometime early in the 2009-10 season - you know, the season that Miller won a Vezina Trophy and nearly won an Olympic gold medal?
If the life-changing experience in question was, say, children, I might be buying it. Those of you who have kids know that you're not yourself for at least a couple weeks after having a baby. Everything is thrown completely out of whack, especially your sleep schedule, and there's almost no avoiding that. It's hard, even for an athlete, to deal with interrupted sleep. I have two young ones myself - a four-year-old daughter and a son who's nearly a year and a half - and I was fortunate enough to get 5-6 weeks of child care leave for each of them. I know some fathers who went back to work three days later. I don't know how they did it.
But marriage? Nah. Life doesn't change in the same way the second you say "I do". It's a signature on a piece of paper, vows exchanged before the deity of your choice (or a legal official if you're not religious), and a big party for all your family and friends. Professional athletes are conditioned to block out distracting noises like 20,000 wiseacre fans; certainly they can block out the distraction of what your wife, who might be three time zones away, is having for dinner that night.
Logically, life ought to get a little easier once the wedding is in the past; to quote our own Matthew Stewart, one gets to "stop worrying about being single". But now that Miller's numbers are atrocious all of a sudden, it must be the wife causing it.
I think what's really happening here is that people are struggling to understand just what in the blue hell has happened to Ryan Miller this year. Blaming his wife for his struggles seems like a desperate attempt to manufacture sense out of a situation that is devoid of it.
Here's my attempt at making sense of the situation: perhaps age, injuries, and fatigue are starting to catch up with Miller, further exacerbating a regression to the mean.
Miller peaked two years ago statistically, posting a 2.22 GAA and .929 save percentage. Outside of that season, his best numbers for a full season aren't even close to those: 2.53 GAA and .918 SV% in the prior season, 2008-09. With five seasons north of 2.50 GAA under his belt and one drastically lower season bringing the average down, one would expect that a season at or higher than his career average of 2.60 GAA isn't out of the ordinary.
Now consider that Miller is 31 years old and has had two concussions in the last year. As you might expect for a position that demands focus and mental sharpness, a goaltender's recovery from a concussion presents its own special challenges. To quote Miller himself from that excellent article: "You feel like you have ADD. You feel like you have extreme ADD when you have the headaches and you have the uncomfortable ‘off’ feeling. I mean, I think history can kind of show I’m a very intense, focused person, and when I can’t even get through a 10-, 15-minute task at home, which I can usually sit down and do, something’s wrong."
I've talked with a lot of people who think the Lucic hit and subsequent concussion undid Ryan Miller this season, and you can count me among the subscribers to that theory. Miller was mostly lights-out in the first few games when the Sabres started 5-1, amongst those a robbery of two points against Montreal on October 18th and a shutout of Florida two days later, but he hasn't looked anything like that since boarding a train on the Milan Lucic Express. True, he did struggle through a string of four mediocre-to-poor starts prior to getting steamrolled by Lucic, but that's too small a sample size to assume it would have been indicative of his season had the injury not occurred. Numbers notwithstanding, I know what my eyes are telling me - I feel like I'm looking at a different Ryan Miller right now than I did in October, sort of like I felt about Jason Pominville last season after he came back from his concussion. He wasn't right for a month or two either.
Again, it's just a hypothesis, and I don't intend to use injuries as an excuse like everyone associated with the Sabres seems to be doing these days. But if 2009-10 put Ryan Miller on a pedestal that he was going to have trouble returning to, doesn't it make sense that repeated concussions might be making his road to elite status even more difficult - especially being on the wrong side of 30? Makes a lot more sense to me than Miller letting in bad goals because he's mad about his wife yelling at him to take out the garbage.
Take us out, Jimmy Buffett: "Some people say there's a woman to blame... but I know it's nobody's fault."
(OK, that's a lie. It's totally Milan Lucic's fault.)