It’s Sunday and with NFL games kicking off and the late afternoon hockey game in Brooklyn, here’s a breakdown of Boston Bruins rookie defenseman Colin Miller, who was acquired from the Los Angeles Kings hours before the first round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft kicked off in exchange for Milan Lucic. The B’s also received goaltender Martin Jones (since traded to San Jose for Sean Kuraly and the Shark’s 2016 first-round selection) and the Kings’ top pick, used to select defenseman Jakub Zboril last June.
Miller has been one of the few bright spots on a beleaguered Boston defense corps in the early going of the 2015-16 season, so we’ll peel the onion back a bit on Miller and take a look at what he brings to the table as a two-way defenseman who appears to be just scratching the surface of what could end up being something special if he continues to develop his impressive physical tools and knack for generating offense. This post will attempt to assess his talents the way the Bruins like to- using their “5 S’s”- Size, Skating, Shot, Sense and Spirit (character), while also looking at his offensive and defensive play based on film study and live game viewing going back to his AHL time with the Manchester Monarchs.
Background: Miller is a late ’92-born player who was first eligible for the NHL draft in 2011, but was passed over that year after completing his first OHL campaign with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, his hometown team. The Kings invited him to their prospects and main camps that summer and he impressed them, but went back into the draft. After an uptick in offensive production in his second OHL season, the Kings spent a fifth-round choice on him in 2012. As he was a second-year eligible, there wasn’t a great deal of information on him leading up to that draft in Pittsburgh. 2012-13 was a major breakout for him, as he scored 20 goals and finished second to Red Wings prospect Ryan Sproul in scoring with the ‘Hounds, tallying 55 points in 54 games that year. A solid if unspectacular rookie pro season with Manchester in 2013-14 was again followed up by a breakthrough year, as Miller scored 19 goals to lead all Monarchs defenders in scoring, while playing a key role on his team’s run to the 2015 Calder Cup championship. In 12 games with the Bruins (he was a healthy scratch on opening night after making the roster out of training camp), Miller has a goal and seven points, and is also a +5. His scoring includes a current six-game streak (1g, 5 assists). He is tied with Zdeno Chara for second on the team in scoring from the blue line behind Torey Krug.
Size: At about 6-foot-1 (he’s probably a shade under that and closer to 6-foot), 196 pounds Miller does not possess ideal size for the position but he’s not undersized either. He’s pretty well in the middle of the physical range which allows him to handle some of the bigger, more powerful forwards in the league.
Skating: Miller is a fluid, effortless skater who generates above average speed in the open ice and demonstrates the lateral mobility required to excel at the position.
He is particularly adept at closing on opponents using a quick short-area burst to narrow and control his gaps, while also possessing the quickness and acceleration to carry the puck out of his own end and lead the rush. Although it did not result in a goal, he made a memorable rush against Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby this past week in Boston’s 4-1 loss, leveraging his powerful stride to back defenders up in the neutral zone, while effectively and crisply edging to cut across the grain and open up a shooting lane as his opponents lost the containment on him.
More than ever, the modern NHL defenseman must have above average to exceptional skating ability not only to lead and join the rush, but to be able to get back in puck retrieval to beat the opposing forecheck and begin the breakout/transition back to offense. Miller has the skating bona fides in this regard, having won the fastest skater competition at the 2015 AHL All-Star Game, but also excelling in his footwork; pivots and changes of direction. This is particularly noticeable in the way he is able to walk the line on the point to open up shooting lanes for himself or passing lanes for better puck distribution into open spaces and better scoring chances.
Shot: This is one of Miller’s signature attributes, and is why he’s hovered at or around 20 goals in two of out his last three seasons.
As you can see from his first NHL goal, Miller can load up and generate tremendous speed and power on his shot. Again- he won the hardest shot event at the All-Star Game last year, so when Miller is able to step into a shot, it’s a screamer that requires a lot of courage for players to step in front of. He’s also got an effective snap shot, as he will get it off quickly and is able to put it on net through traffic.
Miller has also shown a penchant for identifying effective shot selection by not just putting his head down and driving the puck, but by reading the play and goaltender and making a better choice to hide the release point and get a shot to the net that will either force the goaltender to make a stop, or allow a teammate to deflect it on net for a better scoring opportunity. This plays into his next attribute, which is Miller’s instincts for the game.
Sense: From an offensive defender standpoint, Miller has higher-end hockey IQ: he can see the ice extremely well and reads the play to react instinctively and make good decisions in moving the puck to an outlet or taking it himself. He plays a poised, mature game for one so relatively young and inexperienced at the NHL level.
On the defensive side of things, he’s still a work in progress, as he will sometimes be a little slower to anticipate where the puck is going when in his own end. However, there hasn’t been a moment this season where Miller has looked truly lost in the defensive zone- he uses his instincts to make more positive plays than negative ones.
Spirit: After watching him play not only in Boston but in Manchester and even with clips out there from his major junior days, it is readily apparent why Don Sweeney and his pro scouts wanted Miller as part of the return package for Lucic. He plays a spirited, edgy game at times when he needs to, even if being a snarly, physical and even intimidating hitter is not a part of what he brings to the table. Miller has the ability to level a big hit (as evidenced from the preseason hip check above) and will drop the gloves to defend himself or teammates, but he’s much more of an above-the-fray kind of two-way defender who works hard and is a good guy in the room. He’s not an overly adept fighter, but is willing to give it a whirl when challenged. We’ll see his first NHL fight at some point, I’m sure.
Defensive zone play: While not exactly a strength yet, Miller is not a liability in his defensive play. At times, he’s got to remain cognizant of his gap control and stick positioning. Around the net, he has been caught watching the play instead of picking up his man. A lot of what he needs to improve revolves around experience and will likely manifest as he continues to learn and grow within the Boston system and get better with his read/reaction on defense. He’s already a solid 1-on-1 player, who uses his mobility and smarts to keep opponents from taking a direct path to the net. So far, he’s demonstrating effectiveness while partnered with Chara, which should only help him going forward if Claude Julien keeps the two together. In fact, giving Miller an expanded role on the penalty killing unit might help stop the bleeding. He may be young yet, but with his mobility and instincts, it’s worth a shot.
Offensive zone play: Miller is already above average and with Chara’s overall offensive play declining, will challenge Krug as the team’s most capable offensive player from the blue line in time. He is assertive, not afraid to handle the puck at 5-on-5 or on the power play, and skates with his head up, finding the seams in defenses that allows him to make clean passes and maintain puck possession. If one did not know he was a rookie, you would think he’s a 5-10 year veteran sometimes with the way he is able to dish passes off of either side of his blade while making it look effortless in the process.
Projection: “Chiller” has all the makings of a solid No. 2 defender in the NHL and long-term solution in Boston. He has both he physical and mental attributes to log big minutes and play in all situations. He’s in refinement mode, meaning he doesn’t have huge gaps to address in his overall package, but rather- just needs to develop through experience and shared understanding with his teammates and coaches.
In retrospect, it is hard to figure out why Dean Lombardi and the Kings allowed Colin Miller to depart as part of a pretty good package they gave up to Boston without his even being included, but the Bruins and their fans should be happy they did.