Friday, January 13, 2006
Sabres goalies making best of odd situation
By Scott Burnside
BUFFALO -- This is Mika Noronen's office, a vacant auxiliary dressing room on the other side of the wall from the Buffalo Sabres' main dressing room.
"I've got a TV. Lots of room," the 26-year-old Finnish netminder said graciously, ushering a visitor to one of the 20 or so empty chairs in the room.
Noronen sits apart from the rest of his Sabres teammates because, on a purely physical level, there isn't room for him. There are two extra-wide stalls built for goaltenders, and they're occupied by the team's No. 1 and No. 2 netminders, Ryan Miller and Martin Biron.
So, rather than cram into a position player's stall, Noronen sits in the back with the empty chairs and bides his time.
On a more emotional or psychological level, there isn't room for him in the dressing room either, and Noronen feels this is a better place for him to be.
As the third goalie in a two-goalie world, he thinks it's better to quietly keep his distance, while the Sabres sort out a goal tending conundrum that is now stretching into its fifth month.
During games, he rides the bike or sometimes sits with his wife in the stands. He travels with the team and practices, but it's hard when the other two netminders need to, and do, take the bulk of the shots.
"It's tough for me. I'm not in the lineup. I've been trying to stay away a little bit. I've got to say, it's not easy. It's not supposed to be like this in the NHL," Noronen said.
There is a "Waiting for Godot" feel to the Sabres' peculiar goaltending situation.
At the beginning of the season, GM Darcy Regier said he understood that it was not an ideal situation and promised that it would be resolved in a timely fashion.
The team is set to start the second half of the season, and still, the three netminders wait.
Depends on your definition of timely, Regier said with a wry grin.
Still, the GM is nothing if not sympathetic to Noronen's plight.
"Mika's the one that suffered the most out of the three," he said. "If there's anybody I feel for most of all of all our goaltenders, it's Mika because he's had the toughest go here."
As the team hit the midpoint of the season, Regier reiterated his desire to move one of his netminders. But Regier is nothing if not patient. With the March 9 trade deadline almost two months away, a move isn't necessarily imminent, although he knows he holds valuable commodities.
In Noronen, he has a 26-year-old netminder with modest NHL experience (67 games, including just four this season).
Because he has been used sparingly, his value on the market has likely declined since the start of the season. Still, the fact he was the AHL's rookie of the year in 2000 and then tied for the AHL lead in goals against the following season has many teams thinking Miikka Kiprusoff, who came out of obscurity in San Jose to become one of the game's most valuable netminders in Calgary.
"That's the only thing that keeps me positive," Noronen admitted.
Conversely, Biron's wild 13-game winning streak in relief of Miller, who missed six weeks with a broken thumb, makes him the most intriguing in terms of a netminder who could be expected to step into a starting role in goalie-hungry Vancouver, Colorado or Edmonton.
But in spite of almost daily rumors, Regier said the number of calls and the quality of players being discussed when those calls do come have been underwhelming.
"There has been some interest, but I really wouldn't consider it high interest and not high quality interest," Regier said.
So, he will wait.
As will Noronen and Biron and even Miller, the youngest and the least likely of the three to be dealt.
The strange part is that in spite of the potentially divisive situation, the three goaltenders remain close friends and are surprisingly supportive of one another.
"There has been a lot of unselfishness on their part," Regier said. "It tells you about them as people."
Biron, 28, and Noronen have been with the team the longest and have developed a bond, while Miller, 25, and Noronen can often be seen stretching and joking together on the ice. The three sometimes roughhouse, piling on each other after drills.
"It's not ideal. But we're all good people I think," offers Miller, whose talent and promise are in many ways the catalyst to this crowded house. "We're not mean-spirited people. We're not vindictive. We're not condescending. We're all very real people."
If this has been a lost season for Noronen, it has been a season of wild swings for Biron, the 16th overall pick by the Sabres in the 1995 entry draft. Miller, the 138th pick in 1999, won the starting job out of training camp and played in the Sabres' first 10 games before he broke his thumb. Biron came on and went 2-4 before winning 13 straight decisions. But heading into the weekend, Biron has played only twice in eight games. He was named the league's defensive player of the week once and was named runner-up four times so far this season.
"It's not easy going in every day not knowing when you're going to be starting again," said the effervescent Biron, a native of Quebec City.
But it is a testament to his work ethic that when the call came, he answered with a record-setting performance. "If I hadn't prepared and hadn't worked hard and hadn't really focused on what I needed to do, I wouldn't have been able to jump on the opportunity when it came."
Miller appears to have the perfect disposition for this potentially divisive dynamic. He is thoughtful and reflective. For the past year and a half, he has relied on a sports psychologist to help him keep his game in perspective.
"It's something I don't mind talking about because it's been a great help to my game," said Miller.
He is also a big believer in emoting, talking to his parents and cousins, who include pro players Kevin, Kelly and Kip Miller.
"They're my pit crew," said Miller. "We're just fine-tuning my game."
After winning the Hobey Baker award as the top collegiate player in 2001, Miller sought out people who could help him understand how to succeed in the face of high expectation. Among those he spoke to was Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo.
"You want the best for all of us. But we're in a situation that not everybody can have the best," Miller said. "And at the same time, I have to worry about my job and doing my job.
"We're all NHL caliber goaltenders. There's no doubt about that. We can all play."
Just not here.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.