Part of the Bruins’ justification of re-signing Kevan Miller to a four-year, $10 million contract is that Miller has what Don Sweeney calls “relative low mileage.”
On paper, they’re in that maybe-kind-of-technically-correct area. Miller has still only played 180 NHL games, and Hall of Fame defenseman Denis Potvin’s theory is that it takes 300 games in the NHL before a defenseman’s development is complete.
“For a defenseman, you come into the NHL and I think the first 100 games are a freebie,” Potvin explained to WEEI.com back in 2014. “Guys around the league are seeing you develop; they’ve heard about you, there’s talk about first-round draft picks, that kind of thing. So you kind of get a freebie the first hundred games.
“The next hundred games, you’re starting to realize that they’re aware of you, and you’re starting to deal with the glove in the face and a little bit of backtalk, a little bit more hitting and a little more of them trying to get to you.
“The next hundred games are spent adjusting to life in the big leagues. By the time you get to 300 games, you’ve got a pretty good feel of where you belong, how you can play this game, how you fit with your own team. I think it takes that long, and we’re talking a good three years, four years before a guy can really reach his maximum.”
Here’s the thing, though: Miller, who will turn 29 in the second month of next season, is no spring chicken. And as for the mileage, it’s not like he wasn’t playing hockey while he was working his way to the NHL (163 AHL games). Furthermore, he’s spent enough seasons in the NHL (three) to suggest that staying healthy is a challenge. Best-case, he’ll hit that 300-game mark during the second year of his new contract. To say he likely won’t get worse is a safe enough assumption, but the Bruins say he’s still getting better. Common logic would suggest a player of Miller’s age might not a whole lot of untapped potential.
Miller’s contract will take up his age 29, 30, 31 and 32 seasons, years that should be considered rather harmless as far as depreciation goes. A University of British Columbia study published in 2014 found that defensemen typically perform “within 90 percent of their peak” from ages 24 to 34 years old, which is two years longer than the study found to be the case for forwards. IPOD (Incredible Pal of Deej) Ryan Lambert also took a diligent look at this, and found 32 to be the age where uh-oh time typically begins for defensemen.
So in Sweeney’s defense, this is unlike Dennis Seidenberg’s contract, which pays the former top-pairing player an average of $4 million annually as he regresses into his mid-30s. The soon-to-be-35-year-old Seidenberg, a candidate to be traded this offseason, is signed until he is 36.
Sweeney said that the Bruins use regression of players based on age as well as how much hockey they’ve played to gauge what they feel to be the mileage of a player.
“Also, Kevan’s been on an upward swing,” he added. “I think this year was a good indication of that. Obviously the style he plays, he’s subject to getting dinged up. He came back from his shoulder surgery and didn’t miss time with his shoulder at all. He works extremely hard; he works hard on his own individual game. But the character piece speaks for itself. The depth that you need and are required to have at that position is important. I think it allows the younger players that we have in the system to come in and either push players out or develop at the right pace. So we felt comfortable that at his age and the term of it that he was going to continue to get better and work on his game because he’s diligent about it.”
The question is whether Miller’s season last year — which saw him struggle early and play well down the stretch — was just the sign of an inconsistent defenseman who was coming off an injury. Players have peaks and valleys every season, so the fact that the peak of a 28-year-old Miller’s peak last season came later rather than sooner is not necessarily a suggestion that he was actually developing.
The more likely case is that the Bruins signed a player who probably isn’t going to get much worse over the course of the contract. If he gets better during it – as Johnny Boychuk did in a deal that took up his age 28, 29 and 30 seasons – that would be dandy. It just might be a leap to assume that’s going to happen.