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Ryan Miller trade: 40 years of St. Louis Blues history led to deal with Sabres

In denying that he would trade Jaroslav Halak, Blues GM Doug Armstrong outlined exactly why he would trade Jaroslav Halak.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

24 hours before pulling the trigger on a trade to dump Jaroslav Halak in favor of Ryan Miller, this was St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong explaining why he would do no such thing:

"St. Louis historically has been a graveyard for goaltenders," Armstrong said. "I’m not being critical of the fans, but it doesn’t seem like they’ve ever been happy with who’s in the net. Jaro doesn’t deserve to have the past put on him."

Because of injuries, "Jaro has been our starting goaltender for exactly two playoff games," Armstrong said. "He hasn’t failed. He’s going to have the opportunity to show what he’s capable of. That’s how it is in sports. Until you win, you can’t win."

As the next day's bombshell would confirm, Armstrong was blowing smoke. Halak did not get that opportunity. He and Chris Stewart were dealt with a prospect and picks to the Buffalo Sabres for Steve Ott and Miller, the much-rumored target who prompted Armstrong's denial.

Clearly, Armstrong has a good poker face, but he was also right: The Blues didn't have much rational, measurable reason to dump Halak and spend valuable draft picks on a goalie who has similar numbers.

Yet Armstrong made the pricey move anyway.

In protesting too much with his denials and professed confidence in Halak, Armstrong revealed the nagging reasons the Blues and so many of their fans felt this big gamble had to be taken. Halak follows a long line of Blues goaltenders who lacked that extra something that makes a team and fanbase confident heading to the postseason.

Those high-leverage playoff moments are when fans, management and yes, even players are at their most emotionally fragile. A goalie they believe in stabilizes that delicate state, eliminates that nagging sense of doubt.

It may not be fair, but it's the way it is with hockey's most important position.

Armstrong continued -- again, 24 hours before he sent Halak packing:

"The knock on Jaro, is the same knock I heard on [Ed] Belfour — that he couldn’t win the big games," Armstrong said. "We got him in Dallas, and we won it all."

Here too, rationally Armstrong was right. No one is a proverbial "proven winner" until given the chance and a team to help him earn it. But while Miller too has never won "the big game," he's starred for long enough in the NHL, and excelled on long Olympic and playoff runs, to earn a reputation that Halak simply does not have.

In St. Louis, despite a few statistically-excellent seasons, the shine from Halak's career peak, his lone long postseason run with the 2009-10 Montreal Canadiens, had worn off. When it wasn't regular season slumps at the wrong time, it was injuries.

A history of disappointment

As Armstrong alluded, such a fate for goalies in St. Louis is nothing new.

Once the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2012, the Blues became the lone surviving 1967 expansion franchise yet to win hockey's most famous prize. A franchise that reached the Stanley Cup final in its first three seasons on the back of Hall of Fame goaltending from Glenn Hall and Jacques Plante has had mostly-disappointing goaltending ever since.

Mike Liut shined for a team that was three points shy of the President's Trophy in 1980-81, but the Blues later traded him  for the goalie, Greg Millen, who almost upset them that year with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Curtis Joseph was a star for some heavily-outshot underdog Blues teams, then disappointed once they became playoff favorites. Mike Keenan didn't believe he could backstop a front-runner, and Joseph's history afterward with underdog Edmonton and powerhouse Detroit didn't do much to diffuse that theory.

Grant Fuhr was past his prime for some good Blues teams, but did enough to carry them ... until Nick Kypreos "accidentally" landed on Fuhr's knee and removed him from the 1995-96 postseason.

Roman Turek -- who came from Belfour's shadow on the 1999 Cup-winning Dallas Stars -- topped the league with a Jennings Trophy win in 1999-2000, only to implode in the postseason in consecutive years. His Jennings partner, Brent Johnson, became a career NHL backup.

Halak also won a Jennings Trophy on an outstanding Blues team in 2011-12, but his career-high .926 save percentage that season actually trailed crease-mate Brian Elliott's .940. No one in their right mind thinks Elliott is an elite NHL goalie.

Chasing every edge

Detroit too was once "a graveyard for goaltenders" -- Tim Cheveldae's career was among many buried there. Then the Red Wings won Stanley Cups with good-but-not-great Mike Vernon (already a Cup winner in Calgary) and Chris Osgood. Maybe Halak would have been that good-but-not-great victor for St. Louis, but the Blues already spent two postseasons watching injuries stop him before they could find out.

Indeed, goaltending is an inexact science, and the evaluation and belief in the characters who man the nets feels as much like alchemy as rational analysis. In Miller, the Blues have added a goalie who statistically does not look much different than the one they've sent away, but he gives them peace of mind.

There is no doubt that principal Blues owner Tom Stillman, a longtime Blues fan, has all this historical baggage in his mind while endorsing Armstrong's gamble .

In a 30-team league where contending windows are brief and even champions have little reason to bet it's their lucky year, teams chase every edge they can get. With Halak's stumbles and the collective weight of their own history, the Blues had no choice but to try.