Rangers’ Miller Set to Provide Blueshirts With Stardom on Blue Line

The New York Rangers’ relatively small investment in K’Andre Miller looks like it’s about to pay off in a big way in 2022-23.

Not that the Blueshirts’ decision to trade the 48th overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft to move up four spots and take the big defenseman 22nd overall has proven to be much of a cost, given that the player selected 48th, defender Jonathan Tychonick, hasn’t yet amounted to much. Given what Miller has shown in his first two NHL seasons, however, the Rangers would now certainly have given up considerably more to get him.

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Miller’s uncommon skill set of size, athleticism, power skating, puck-handling and innate understanding of the game has needed little polishing – so little, in fact, that the former Wisconsin Badger didn’t play a day in the minor leagues before making his debut for the 2020-21 season. Just 21 at the time, Miller was essentially a lineup staple from Day 1, relying more on his formidable physical abilities to overcome a lack of experience and find a home teamed with veteran Jacob Trouba on the Rangers’ second defense pair.

K'Andre Miller New York Rangers
Rangers defenseman K’Andre Miller (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Miller posted 12 points and a plus-9 rating in playing 53 of 56 games in that pandemic-shortened season. He followed it up in 2021-22 with a more fundamentally-sound performance, recording seven goals, 13 assists and a plus-23 mark in playing all 82 games while averaging better than 20 minutes per.

Miller Looking Like Latest Young Rangers Defenseman to Fulfill Potential

The Minnesota native’s physical side and a nastier edge began to emerge last season as well. Given his progress over his first two seasons, and a clearly blossoming game that was on display through an impressive preseason, it appears as if Miller is on the verge of delivering a breakout performance – which would just the latest for a Rangers defense corps that’s made a habit of it over the past several years.

Is Miller, still just 22, about to become a shutdown No. 1 blueliner? Quite possibly, given that he might not be all that far from it now. Miller’s strength, stickwork and uncommon closing speed for a 6-foot-5, 210-pound player is what drew the Rangers to him four years ago. Even they might not have been able to envision him putting it all together so quickly, with just two seasons of NHL experience mixed in that seem to have raised MIller’s confidence significantly going into this season.

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“I think he got better in all areas throughout the season and the playoffs he really peaked and played great for us, and he’s another year older. So he’s coming to camp very confident,” coach Gerard Gallant said.

” … He’s getting better defensively, that’s what you want from all the young defensemen, and he’s definitely taken a step there. His offense, he’s a great skater, he joins the rush a lot, so his overall game’s been real good for us.”

Jacob Trouba K'Andre Miller New York Rangers
Miller with defense partner Jacob Trouba (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Gallant has inherited quite the opportunity with the Rangers when it comes to the defense corps, a youthful one but a group that’s delivered more immediately on their promise than the team’s young forwards have to this point. In Miller, the second-year coach can help along yet another defender who’s proven to be a quick study on how to become a standout NHL regular.

Related: Rangers’ Zac Jones Must Seize Opportunity This Season

In 2019-20, Adam Fox and his defense partner Ryan Lindgren emerged as pillars of the back line, with Fox going on to win the Norris Trophy in his second season and Lindgren developing into a nasty, tone-setting physical defenseman. Last season, Brendan Schneider arrived in January and seemed to declare himself as another foundational piece-in-waiting, as he heads into the season secure in his spot on the right side of the third pair.

The biggest breakout candidate on defense for 2022-23, though, is Miller, who looks to be on the verge of fully harnessing his otherworldly mix of talents to become the kind of player that gives opponents headaches. The former forward was looked at by some as a project, sure to need time to adjust to the NHL and the demands of playing defense at the highest level as he worked to mold his vast potential.

Needless to say, Miller has been anything but that. The big guy’s most-overlooked talent is his exceptional hockey IQ that’s played a major role in his fast rise – and might be a big reason why he was able to move so seamlessly from forward to defense in high school. Subsequently, the Blueshirts can’t wait to see him hit the ice this season, one in which they believe he could fully form into a multi-dimensional force that exceptionally denies zone entry, dominates battles along the boards in his own end and in front of the net and uses his powerful strides to join the rush as part of a developing offensive game.

Rangers Defense Rising Quickly as Young Forwards Still Adapting to NHL

In NBA parlance, Miller might be referred to as “unicorn,” the label given to players with a vast array of skills, including abilities that wouldn’t seem to fit with that player’s expected profile.

“Obviously, it’s a continuous thing. Just keep growing and grinding and doing it one step better each day,” Miller said during the preseason. “Take it day by day and enjoy the process.”

The signs of a near-future stalwart defense corps couldn’t come at a better time for the Rangers, who are still waiting (and in some cases, only hoping) when it comes to their young forward prospects, a group that hasn’t come close to matching the defense’s timeline. Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko, the high draft picks, have delivered encouraging performances mixed in with sometimes-considerable growing pains. The front office is crossing its collective fingers that the Vitali Kravtsov saga has ended with him becoming a productive fixture in the lineup, and that Filip Chytil is about to finally take the next step after a dominant playoff performance.

Adam Fox New York Rangers
Miller might be about to join Adam Fox as a pillar of the Rangers’ defense (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Generally, it’s the other way around, given the often-steep learning curve when it comes to developing as a defender as compared to the responsibilities of playing forward. Not in this case.

While uncertainty surrounds the kids up front, the Rangers’ defense is set to keep moving toward becoming the backbone of the team. With Miller seemingly poised to join Fox as a legitimate star, and Schneider looking like yet another keeper, that might happen much more quickly than anyone could have imagined.

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