Though the NHL is on the verge of returning, there’s little doubt that the league – just like the rest of the world – won’t look normal for perhaps quite a while.
So there still remains plenty of room for fans to dream, as many have during this unprecedented pause in play, of full arenas and typical playoffs and what their teams could look like when certain young players finally get a chance to prove themselves.
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For New York Rangers fans, it’s doubtful that too many prospects in an organization now full of them invoke more wishful thinking than K’Andre Miller.
A huge, athletic defenseman who skates like a smaller man, provides a physical presence to go with untapped offensive potential and just might end up as the lynchpin of a versatile young Blueshirts blue line in the not-too-distant future? Sure, that might stir the imagination just a tad.
The coronavirus shutdown certainly didn’t help the cause of the 22nd overall pick in the 2018 draft – who general manager Jeff Gorton traded up four spots to select – as Miller was likely to join the Hartford Wolf Pack on a tryout contract in March in order to give him a taste of pro hockey going into next season. Instead of heading to the AHL shortly after his college season ended, the pandemic led to the pause in play that left Miller and countless other kids in limbo.
The University of Wisconsin product had to settle for the excitement of signing his entry-level contract that begins next season – whenever that may be – albeit with less fanfare than he would have been afforded in a normal world.
Miller’s Strength and Speed Personifies Rangers Defense
Yet the importance of getting Miller into the fold wasn’t lost on the faithful, who are sure to test the big guy’s mettle in the next few seasons with their heightened expectations. That’s because Miller, raw as he is, could prove to be the key element in the rebuilding of the defense that, while impressive, might require his successful development to reach its full potential.
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The 6-foot-5, 210-pounder blends the skills that the Rangers have worked to incorporate into their defense corps. Jacob Trouba and Ryan Lindgren provided edge and physicality in their first seasons on Broadway. Ryan Fox and Tony DeAngelo are the puck-movers, significantly responsible for the Rangers’ power play developing a lethal quality in 2019-20. Highly regarded Libor Hajek, though he suffered through a difficult season, may yet become a sound positional defender who can push the puck out of his own zone quickly.
Yet none of those 20-somethings can do it all. Miller might be able to.
It’s the closing speed to reach puck carriers and deny zone entry, at which Miller, 20, excels. The ability to clear out the front of the net with his power, along with delivering crushing checks along the boards. The speed to transition and join the rush, and a potentially higher offensive upside than he’s shown to this point.
No pressure, of course. Miller, though, seemed to understand what would be expected of him upon being selected by the Rangers.
“I come to the rink every day determined, like I said, and willing to get better,” he said at the 2018 draft. ” … I push myself to be one of the best guys on the rink every day. I’m a defensive defenseman with offensive abilities. I use my size, speed and strength to my advantage, and then when the time comes, I like to use my offensive abilities too.”
Could the left-hander be the guy to tie it all together on the blue line for the Rangers, setting the tone on the top pair, perhaps with Trouba on his right? One would imagine that’s what the front office envisioned for Miller when they surrendered a second-round pick, 48th overall, two years ago to get into position to grab a player they didn’t expect to available so late in the first round. And there’s the added priority to find a long-term consistent partner for Trouba, something the Rangers have thus far been unable to do for their prized 2019 offseason trade acquisition and who struggled at times partly as a result.
Watching Ryan Graves, another big defender with a range of skills who the Blueshirts let get away and then had to grit their collective teeth as he led the league at plus-40 with the Colorado Avalanche this season – rather than pairing him with Trouba – only increases Miller’s importance to the organization.
That importance was clear when they Rangers sacrificed a high draft pick to get into position to take Miller, and the organization’s investment in him only deepened after he was the victim of a disgusting incident during an online fan video chat in April, when a hacker posted racial slurs within the chat.
“A vile individual hijacked the chat to post racial slurs, which we disabled as soon as possible,” the Rangers said then in a statement. “We were incredibly appalled by this behavior, which has no place online, on the ice, or anywhere, and we are investigating the matter.”
Rangers Hope Miller Can Catch Up Quickly
All of that tantalizing potential is, of course, just that. Miller remains an unpolished gem, a forward until being moved to defense in high school in Minnesota, who endured some rough patches with the Badgers and in this winter’s World Junior Championship. He’ll need plenty of seasoning, which is why even the lost opportunity to get his feet wet in the AHL this season, as limited as it would have been, is a blow to his development. Lindgren, Fox, DeAngelo and of course Trouba, the young veteran, have the benefit of NHL reps as they go through the often arduous process of becoming solid NHL defensemen.
Miller came along a little later, so naturally, he’s behind them. The Rangers would like nothing more than to see a short learning curve, but they aren’t going to rush him under any circumstances. Therein lies the conundrum – the club is ready to take the next step toward playoff contention in a rebuild that’s two-and-a-half years along, yet a player who could mean so much to that process isn’t nearly ready to contribute yet.
Jeff Gorton and co. will wait for Miller, of course. Two spots on the blue line are set to open up after next season, with the contracts of veterans Marc Staal and Brendan Smith expiring. The general manager would love to see his unexpected draft bounty trend upward in the AHL enough next season that Miller is ready to challenge for one of those spots in 2021-22, or even supplant Staal or Smith late next season, but that’s likely a far too optimistic timeline.
When it comes to Miller, Rangers fans will probably have to dream for a while longer. They and the team can only hope those dreams become reality soon enough.