It’s been about a week since the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championships that saw Finland earn gold after defeating the United States 3-2. The U.S did exceptionally well, dropping one preliminary game to Sweden in overtime before eventually earning silver in the final contest. On that 23-player roster for the U.S. National Junior Team was New York Rangers defense prospect K’Andre Miller.
According to TSN, the 2018 22nd overall draft pick finished the tournament with one assist and seven shots on goal in six games (He didn’t play against Finland on Dec. 31). His best game was against Kazakhstan, when the 6-foot-4 lefty finished plus-three with an assist on Tyler Madden’s second-period tally, as well as five shots on goal. In the gold-medal game, Miller finished minus-two.
He didn’t lead in any statistical categories, get named as an All-Star or score four goals in one third-period frame like his teammate Ryan Poehling did, but the University of Wisconsin freshman held his own on a big stage with the best hockey players in the world at his age level. I took advantage of watching Miller next to so many NHL prospects at once and dissected his game as he continues to develop under the Rangers organization and in college hockey.
Where Miller Excels and Where Development is Needed
Despite having a large build, Miller skates with a weightlessness that shows in his versatile mobility on the ice. He can hustle from goal line to goal line while pushing the puck, so long as he already has momentum. He pinches at the blue line well while still being capable of getting back on defense. He has tremendous awareness in the defensive zone, always managing to appear calm and composed.
I’m particularly impressed by Miller’s agility. He changes directions as if he isn’t over 200 pounds while finessing sharp pivots and cuts despite his size. He has a solid presence in the neutral zone, utilizing his build and positioning his body to make it harder for attacking opponents. Miller is a defensive-minded defenseman who uses his assets well, but has yet to embrace his capabilities offensively.
There’s a deep lack of aggression in Miller’s offensive game. He is particular about the scoring chances he gets involved in, often times showing inconsistency when he pushes the puck. Fortunately, these are all areas of the game that I believe come in time with confidence and experience.
It’s also worth mentioning that Miller has only been a defenseman for around four years after growing up as a forward his whole life. A coach back in Minnesota needed an extra defenseman for a team and asked Miller if he was willing to try it out, unknowingly introducing him to his new path in hockey.
He admitted that he found it difficult to transition between the positions, which could be at the heart of his various developing struggles. With more years under his belt as a true defenseman, he should be able to correct the hiccups that have prevented him from becoming an offensive threat.
An Effective Freshman Defenseman in the Big Ten
Miller is in the midst of his freshman season at Wisconsin where he has established himself as a consistent player. Through 18 games, the 18-year-old has amassed four goals and a team-high 13 assists for a team-leading 17 points despite being absent for the team’s last two games. He is tied for sixth in points among all NCAA Division I defensemen while his 2.00 points-per-game (P/G) average for the month of December tied for the most among all skaters and led all rookies in the nation.
In his first collegiate season, Miller has done astounding things for the Wisconsin hockey program and has proven to be an effective player in college hockey. Before representing the U.S. at World Juniors, he put up two goals and six points in Wisconsin’s last three games of 2018.
Miller opened December with a four-point performance in the Badgers’ 8-5 comeback victory over Penn State, earning him the Big Ten’s First Star of the Week honor on Dec. 4. After netting the game-winning goal and dishing three assists, he registered the Badger’s first four-point game since Oct. 2016 and the school’s first four-point contest by a defenseman since two-time Stanley Cup champion Justin Schultz in Jan. 2012.
Leading all Big-Ten freshman in scoring with a .94 P/G average, Miller seems to have easily integrated into the notorious conference. He has been a dependable defenseman for the program, putting in the unselfish work that shows up in his 22 blocks and 13 assists. But the fact that he’s been able to have the level of impact that he has had in his first season is the most impressive part. It’s not easy to keep up in college hockey and it usually takes a year for players to get acclimated to the fast pace, but Miller has not only kept up, he has made a difference.