Nobody should be surprised to see the kind of ability that K’Andre Miller has displayed during Wisconsin’s first 18 games of the season. Upside is why we ranked Miller as a first-round talent in June, and it’s also the exact reason the Rangers traded up to 22nd overall at the 2018 NHL Draft and selected him.
What is so remarkable is how quickly he is putting it all together. Sure, we noted his frame, athleticism, and raw talent. But we also wrote that his freshman season in the NCAA would come with an adjustment period and he would require patience. There would have been no shame in that, as plenty of NHL defensemen had inauspicious freshman NCAA seasons; Brady Skjei among them.
We were wrong.
As noted here on Blueshirt Banter back in October, Miller was the best player on the ice during his NCAA debut, scoring a goal and playing lockdown defense. Since then, he has continued to produce, and in fact leads all Wisconsin skaters - forwards included - with 17 points (four goals plus 13 assists) in 18 games.
In fact, it’s that production itself which is so stunning. As talented as he is, there were major questions surrounding his ability to translate that into points during offensive zone possessions. Currently, he is tied for 11th among all NCAA defensemen in points-per-game and in fact leads all freshmen defensemen by a sizable margin. The metadata is also encouraging. He is generating most of his points at even strength - just six of his 17 points were on the power play - and he’s averaging a healthy 2.5 shots-per-game. Miller is not earning cheap points or riding a lucky wave. He’s been a consistent force for Wisconsin on the offensive side of the game.
The improvements for Miller offensively have been both technical and mental. He’s learned how to leverage his strength and reach to create quite the shot. It gets off his stick quickly, and he gets so much power behind it that he’s able to find the upper portions of the net.
Overall, though, he’s developed more of a killer instinct. He’s no longer quite as much of a passive presence and instead is looking to be a direct contributor to plays. He’s already shooting more for Wisconsin than he did the in the USHL last season, and he’s really carrying the puck with purpose. Though they play different positions, in certain ways Miller reminds me of Chris Kreider. He is similarly such an overwhelming physical presence and is extremely intimidating when he puts his head down and blows past defenders in straight lines.
Defensively, he has been the total package for Wisconsin as well. He covers a lot of ground with his skating. He uses his big body behind the net and in front of the crease. The previous clip shows how well he uses his long reach to disrupt rushes and break up plays. Reminiscent of Marc Staal in his prime. Here is a different example which shows off a few of these skills.
There is a lot of credit to go around. Miller obviously deserves plenty for his own development. Wisconsin Head Coach Tony Granato has done a very good job of turning around the Badgers’ hockey program, and his trust in and deployment of Miller is a major contributing factor to both his and the team’s success. Finally, Rangers’ scout Jamie Herrington does a lot of the Rangers’ USHL and NCAA scouting, and presumably had a major role in convincing the Rangers to draft Miller as well as NOT drafting Oliver Wahlstrom over Vitali Kravtsov.
The tough part of writing articles like these is accurately portraying all of the positives without setting off a hype tornado. Miller has been about as pleasant of a surprise as there has been in the NCAA this season, but he’s still plenty raw. There is a lot of improvement to be made in all areas, but in particular I think he needs to improve his stickhandling in tighter areas. He can drive through the neutral zone when lanes are open and also makes crisp passes, but he’s not particularly great at keeping the puck in close proximity when there’s less room to maneuver. Miller’s odds of reaching the NHL have increased exponentially in the last few months, but there’s still a lot left to prove.
This is not a decision the Rangers have to make for another six months - give or take - but another NCAA season would seem wise. He’s playing very well, but the level is hardly beyond him. The worst mistake the team could make is irreversibly pushing him into pro hockey before he’s ready. Not to mention that there are expansion draft circumstances that incentivize a delayed promotion to pro hockey.
That it’s even a talking point speaks measures of his development in just the last few months. He was a strong favorite to make USA’s world junior roster to begin with, but there’s no doubt that he will have a major role for the team in the upcoming tournament. Miller is a rare talent and there was plenty of reason to believe he could become a bonafide top prospect. He’s realizing that upside far sooner than anyone expected, and that’s a major gain for a Ranger team who desperately need a young defenseman of such quality.