Sabres Report: An Embarrassment of Riches

By Ken McKenna

For as long as the Buffalo Sabres franchise has existed, there has been one position on this team that is rarely wanting for talent, specifically the goaltending. From the early years of the franchise with the acrobatic Roger Crozier, to the present day team featuring future Hall-of-Famer Dominik Hasek and star-in-waiting Martin Biron, the goaltender’s position has been the one area where Buffalo has seemingly always had quality talent to draw upon.

The good news for Sabres fans is that this run of good fortune at the goaltending position should continue into the foreseeable future. Indeed, Buffalo may have more good young puckstoppers in the organization than at any time in team history. Buffalo’s current backup goalie, Martin Biron, has already shown that he has the ability to be the go-to guy once Hasek decides to hang up his pads, yet Martin won’t turn 24 until August. And the depth does not end with Biron, as the Sabres have a couple of quality prospects waiting in the wings should Martin falter or become trade bait.

Buffalo’s top goaltending prospect, not to mention the top prospect in the organization, is Mika Noronen of the AHL’s Rochester Americans. Mika last season turned in a performance that earned him The Hockey News’ Minor Pro Prospect of the Year award, as well as several other honors. Not content to rest on his laurels, Noronen has turned in another strong showing during the 2000-01 season, as he was the major reason that the low scoring Americans were able to finish atop the AHL’s Western Conference.

Mika’s 00-01 season began in Buffalo, where he received his first taste of NHL action as a starter due to an injury to Dominik Hasek and the holdout of Martin Biron. While Mika was not spectacular in his initial NHL outings, he did show flashes of the form that made him the top minor league prospect in 99-00. Mika returned to the Rochester lineup once Hasek healed, a return that was at first a bit of a struggle for the young netminder. Noronen struggles continued through November, but his game rounded into form during December, which earned him the AHL’s Goaltender of the Month honor for that month.

Not unlike last season, Mika turned in an especially strong 2nd half of the season in 00-01, as he helped lead Rochester to the top of the conference. Mika played so well that he was named to the AHL’s 2nd All-Star team, the second consecutive year he had earned that honor. Noronen was also named Rochester’s MVP, which was another honor he had received last season, as well. Mika and Amerks backup goalie Tom Askey also earned the AHL’s Hap Holmes Award, which is presented to the team that allows the fewest goals against.

Mika’s stats bore testament to his strong season, as he finished 2nd in GAA (2.18), 3rd in wins (26), and tied for 2nd in shutouts (4). Noronen’s save percentage of .913 was slightly off his .920 showing of 99-00, but this drop was due largely to the slow start he experienced upon his return to Rochester from Buffalo.

Unfortunately, Mika and his Rochester teammates were ousted in the first round of the AHL playoffs by the Philadelphia Phantoms, 3 games to 1. The early ouster after such a promising season could not be laid at the feet of Noronen, however, as he was one of the few Amerks who had his strong regular season showing carry over into the post-season.

Noronen could stick with the Sabres next season should Hasek decide to call it a NHL career, but, given the depth Buffalo has at the goaltending position, Mika could also end up as a very valuable commodity on the trade market. Buffalo will almost certainly have a couple holes to fill in the off-season, so the movement of a goaltender to shore up a weakness would seem to be a logical move for Buffalo GM Darcy Regier. Regardless, Mika, who was rated the 4th overall NHL prospect in THN’s recent Future Watch issue, would certainly appear to have a bright future ahead of him.

Another young Buffalo goaltending prospect building an impressive resume is Michigan State sophomore Ryan Miller. Ryan and his Spartan teammates had a great season, as they were the top-ranked team in the NCAA going into the Frozen Four. While MSU was unable to capture the national championship, Ryan nevertheless took home enough hardware to fill his own wing of the MSU Sports Hall of Fame.

Ryan’s fantastic performance during the 2000-01 season did not go unnoticed outside of East Lansing, as Miller was named the Hobey Baker Award winner, which is given to the player deemed college hockey’s top performer. While there is no higher honor than the Baker trophy, it was by no means Ryan’s only prize, as he was named MSU’s MVP, while also being named to the West All-America First Team. The honors didn’t stop there, however, as Ryan was named to the U.S. squad participating in the 2001 World Championships currently taking place in Germany. And on April 17th, right before he left to join the U.S. team, Miller was honored in East Lansing with "Ryan Miller Day"- pretty heady stuff for a college sophomore.

Why all the attention? One need look no further than the stats Ryan racked up during the 2000-01 season. Miller led all NCAA goaltenders in wins (31), goals against average (1.31), save percentage (.951), and shutouts (10). Ryan broke the CCHA’s single season shutout record, while his 18 career shutouts broke a 70-year-old NCAA record. And finally, Miller’s save percentage of .951 was the best single season percentage in NCAA history. Heck, he even chipped in to the offense with 3 assists!

With statistics like those, it is obvious that Ryan is a highly skilled netminder. Miller is a lanky goalie who manages to fill up the net, even when he is dropping to his knees, which he does on a frequent basis. Ryan has good quickness, and is a good puckhandler who rarely gets himself into trouble while playing the puck. His lack of a panic point is ideal for a goaltender, while his focus during a game is a prime reason that so few shots get past him.

While Ryan’s excellent performance over the past 2 seasons has been a product of talent and hard work, there is no question that he has benefited from the defense-first mentality of the MSU coaches and players. Perhaps Miller would not have put up such impressive numbers had he played in a more free-wheeling system, but he nonetheless appears to have all the attributes necessary to eventually be a very good pro puckstopper.

The final player on Buffalo’s goaltending prospect depth chart is Ghyslain Rousseau of the QMJHL’s Baie-Comeau Drakkar. Ghyslain, a 4th round pick for Buffalo in the 2000 draft, had a season that could best be termed forgettable. Rousseau struggled during his appearances in Buffalo’s rookie camp exhibitions in early September, which set the tone for the rest of his 200-01 season.

Ghyslain entered the 2000-01 season as Baie-Comeau’s top goaltender, but he was quickly supplanted by his backup of the previous season, David St. Germain. St. Germain remained Baie-Comeau’s top netminder throughout the 00-01 season, as Rousseau appeared in just 29 of 72 games, winning just 9 of those appearances. Rousseau’s status has not changed for the playoffs, either, as he has appeared in just 1 of the Drakkar’s 11 playoff contests.

Rousseau did have one highlight for the season, as he was named the QMJHL’s Defensive Player of the Week for the week ending 12/3/00. Ghyslain won both his games during that week, posting one shutout and a .976 save percentage. This appeared to be a turning point in Rousseau’s season, but he was not able to build on it in the remainder of the season.

Rousseau is a goaltender who relies on his quickness and a good glove hand. He has a tendency to stay back in his net, rather than come out to challenge shooters, so his agility is particularly important to his overall game. Ghyslain may need to rely on his reflexes a little less, and instead needs to work on his positioning.

While it is tempting to write Ghyslain off as a flop, it’s doubtful that Buffalo will give up on Rousseau without seeing how he plays next season. Given the depth that the Sabres have at the goaltending position, the one thing Ghyslain has going for him is the time to develop his game. Rousseau should be able to regain his starting job with Baie-Comeau in the fall, so the 2001-02 season will likely go a long way towards determining his future as a pro.