Bruins defenseman Kevan Miller averaged 25:12 of time on ice during the playoffs. (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)
Somebody on the Bruins will take a contract-long vacation to Las Vegas as part of the league’s upcoming expansion draft this June.
By now, the names floated out there as most likely to venture out to Nevada as an original member of the Vegas Golden Knights are well known. It’s a mix of guys eventually due for raises that the B’s may not want to pay (Ryan Spooner, Colin Miller), experienced veterans (Adam McQuaid), or potentially cap-crushing contracts, which could actually help Vegas reach the cap floor, such as Matt Beleskey or Jimmy Hayes.
On the other side, the people you want to see the Bruins protect likely remained the same from start to finish this season. But at the same time, it should have changed if you watched the B’s first-round series loss to the Senators with a close eye.
Specifically in regards to one person: Bruins defenseman Kevan Miller.
Bruins general manager Don Sweeney has already hinted that the Bruins are leaning towards the 7-3-1 protection plan, which allows the Bruins to protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and a goalie. Again, the names up front are rather obvious and there’s no way that the Bruins do not protect Tuukka Rask, but it’s on the point where things become interesting.
The Bruins have two redundant contracts in McQuaid and Miller (Miller makes $2.5 million per year, McQuaid at $2.75 million per year, they’re almost the same age, and both are best as the right-side complement to a puck-moving defenseman like Torey Krug). McQuaid, for what it’s worth, has already expressed his interest in staying with the Bruins. The other Miller d-man, Colin, is also a player that the Bruins could consider protecting from the Golden Knights. It’s also obvious that Krug, who recorded a career-high 51 points this past season, will be the club’s second protected defender behind Zdeno Chara, who will have to be protected because of his no-movement clause (and should be protected) anyways. So, it’s that third and final spot on the club’s point that will come back to McQuaid, the Miller defensemen, or the previously unmentioned Joe Morrow.
And that coveted third spot, as a six-game playoff run told you, should probably go to No. 86.
Say this to me a year ago — or even six months ago, actually — and I would have laughed at you. But when the stakes were at their highest, Miller upped his game and became one of the club’s most dependable defensemen. He was the No. 3 in a close-game rotation that saw the Bruins give heavy minutes to Zdeno Chara’s and their second-defenseman-by-necessity Charlie McAvoy. But he also proved that he can be more than a No. 5 defenseman on a good team. There were times where Miller had strong plays with the puck to begin a rush the other way, or made the right pinch or offensive-zone read to lead to more offensive chances for the Bruins. Miller also remained true to what put him in this spot to begin with, with 20 hits and 17 blocked shots, and ranked third among Boston defensemen in time on ice during the postseason (25:14) and second among penalty-killing time on ice (3:56).
But it’s the former points that were interesting for the Black and Gold.
Miller, for all of his struggles for goals against — I prefer to call it the 2009-10 Dennis Wideman Effect, where everything that could go wrong did go wrong and appeared beyond glaring — recorded career-highs in goals (five), assists (13), and points (18) in 71 games in 2015-16. He followed that up with three goals and 13 points in 58 games during this past regular season. It’s the point-per-game pace that indicates that the career-high from two seasons ago would have been reached for the second year in a row had it not been for a 13-game dropoff due to injury (Miller missed a total of 24 games to injury this season, the most coming with a 19-game absence because of a hand injury suffered at the end of the preseason).
A student of Adam Oates’ skills coaching, Miller has made the necessary adjustments to become an impact talent for the B’s.
“I think, as a player, if you’re not trying to get better, you’re getting worse, especially in this league now,” the 29-year-old Miller said. “I think guys are getting faster, they’re getting bigger, getting better with the puck, I think, so it’s something that, every summer, you have to go out there and try and better yourself, not just for yourself, but for your team.”
The Bruins have seen that change on the club’s right side in the past season alone, too, with the emergence of both Brandon Carlo and McAvoy during this past season. That has, believe it or not, made Miller’s presence all the more valuable for the Bruins. A right-side defender for most of his Bruins career, Miller played significant time on the club’s left side this past season, where Chara and Krug remain the first and second pairing presences, and was just as effective there. A righty going to the left is not easy for most defensemen, and that versatility gives Miller some extra value to the B’s beyond everything already mentioned.
With improvements from year to year while refusing to stray from the physical brand your defense still needs even in today’s skilled-beyond-belief game (Miller finished the year with 121 hits and 77 blocked shots, along with the fourth-best Corsi-for percentage among Boston defensemen), the Bruins simply can’t let Miller and his affordable $2.5 million cap hit go for nothing, which is exactly what would happen if he’s exposed to the Golden Knights.
“I have aspirations of winning the Stanley Cup. That’s why I’m here,” Miller, an undrafted talent who has spent his entire career with the Bruins, said. “That’s why I wanted to sign here, and if you’re not getting yourself better, you’re not helping your team.”