I found myself thinking about Kurt Russell’s speech in Miracle, in which he portrays legendary Team USA coach Herb Brooks, when thinking about K’Andre Miller ahead of opening night on Thursday. I feel like I’ve used this line to start a story or make a point before, but it feels relevant for a number of reasons.
“Great moments are born, from great opportunity.” Simply stated, the Rangers’ top left-handed defense prospect has a great opportunity to make an impact on the 2020-21 Blueshirts. It could be a big impact, or a small impact, but an impact nonetheless. It is an opportunity that wasn’t expected, because if all were normal in the world, Miller would likely have been getting his start with the Hartford Wolf Pack. But the AHL is starting after the NHL, and Miller impressed in training camp. So, for the time being; K’Andre Miller is a New York Ranger. K’Andre Miller is Jacob Trouba’s defense partner.
All of this is awesome and exciting, because it represents the future ahead of schedule; it gives fans a chance to wonder and awe of what is, and what can be. Head coach David Quinn has spoken highly of Miller throughout training camp, and a quote regarding the Rangers’ rookie rearguard made the rounds on social media.
He's tough to beat. pic.twitter.com/1sUZA60AXh— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) January 11, 2021
Miller is 6’5”, 210 lbs. and although NHL competition is going to be an adjustment for him, his frame and ability makes him the type of defender the organization desperately needs. Adam’s watched way more of Miller than I have, so I’ll defer to him when it comes to what he brought to the table in order to be named the Rangers’ No. 3 prospect in the 2020 prospect rankings series.
His presence on the ice is immense. With his size and speed, he can close gaps in a hurry. He’s quick enough to outright win races. If it’s close, he almost always has a physical advantage. Add in an active, rangy stick, and rush through Miller’s side of the ice at your own peril.
Despite the scoring decline, I was impressed by Miller’s command of the puck from the back-end. When the Rangers drafted him, he was good for the occasional north-south rush of the puck through the neutral zone. He’s added an ability to beat forecheckers with agility, carrying around them at controlled tempos, rather than solely straight-line speed. Even more encouraging was that his passing ability has improved. I don’t think he’s going to be a playmaker in the offensive zone, but he’s capable of advancing the puck to forwards at the blue line to create zone entries.
Reading the above, and seeing Adam’s assessment in conjunction with Quinn’s words certainly should get you excited. It’s also important to know that there’s a good chance Miller will have some struggles, but that’s perfectly fine because he is open to the opportunity of learning.
Via Mollie Walker of the New York Post
The biggest thing for me is just learning. Obviously, this next level, it’s hard. Everybody is good. I think just learning from the older guys that have been through it, just picking up little things to work on and look out for has been huge for me. Obviously, like I said, it’s been a long offseason, so watching a ton of film, hitting the weight room and just trying to prepare myself for the season is kind of the mindset I’ve been the last couple of months.
One of the upsides of the wacky 56-game season that will pit the Rangers against seven opponents eight times each is that it presents a unique environment to nurture and develop prospects. Typically, an NHL season is full of road trips, back-to-backs, tough opponents, and other elements that can make it tough for a rookie to acclimate and feel comfortable. This year there won’t be a ton of travel. There won’t be many back-to-backs for the Rangers, and they won’t be playing some of the best teams in the league. Rather, they’ll be playing just seven other teams who are all in close proximity to each other geographically.
At the very least, that means Miller will have the opportunity to showcase his ability against varying degrees of NHL talent. He won’t be playing against a Connor McDavid, or Nathan MacKinnon, or Brayden Point, but he’ll see Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, David Pastrnak, Jack Eichel, and some other big names. And he will be seeing those names frequently, so if he happens to make a mistake in Game 1 vs. an opponent, he’ll have an opportunity to correct it in one of the seven other meetings against them. In the case of the New York Islanders, he’ll see them on Saturday after skating against them Thursday night assuming Miller is a lock for the lineup of course.
But no matter what, Miller be skating against NHL talent, and he’ll have a chance to see if he can hang at the NHL level. That’s incredibly valuable and can have a dramatic effect on Miller’s development and learning curve.
As Adam noted in his assessment of Miller, he is a player that the Rangers are excited about and have big plans for. Even if Miller is an average NHL player, or slightly below average player, that will put him way ahead of some of the left handed defenders that are on the roster. There’s nothing to be learned this year from Jack Johnson, and little room to continue playing him if he’s the same player he was in Pittsburgh and Columbus. While Miller is less seasoned, the boom potential is worth all the busts and mishaps that may come along the way.
Ideally, teams want to bring players along slowly and ease them into more and more difficult situations as to not overwhelm them. In some cases that means keeping them in the CHL, NCAA, Europe, or the AHL longer. This has been especially true of defenders, and not to make comparisons based on skill or potential, but Ryan McDonagh spent 119 games at Wisconsin, and 38 with the Wolf Pack before making his debut on Broadway. But due to the pandemic, if Miller didn’t make the Rangers out of camp, he wasn’t playing immediately in Hartford.
As the Rangers move further away from being a rebuilding team toward being a contender, they need to make the most of their opportunities to assess the talent they have, and for lack of better phrasing, “stress test” them. In other words, play them until they prove they can’t, then adjust as needed. Miller is here for now, and there’s all the reason in the world to play him, let him succeed, let him fail, let him be a kid trying to find his way in the NHL, and lead him along the way.
Thursday is going to be a fun night for fans. It a long time coming given the fact the team hasn’t played a game since August, but also because there’s so many fun faces to watch. Alexis Lafrenière, deservedly, has drawn a lot of attention, but fans should be equally excited about his roommate/billet brother.
The future is now, for the time being, so enjoy the ride.