In just one year, K’Andre Miller went from defending players his own age at the collegiate level to defending NHLers who have been playing professional hockey since before he could even walk.
Setting aside the fact that the rookie defenseman wasn’t even a lock to make the Rangers’ roster out of training camp – then did so after dazzling team management – Miller has made the transition look effortless.
All while managing a steady diet of Sidney Crosby, Alexandar Ovechkin and Brad Marchand.
“Going up against these top guys in the league every night, it’s a challenge,” he said following the Rangers’ optional practice Friday. “But I’ve embraced it and I love those battles against those top lines. It just gives me more confidence, honestly – having that extra target on my back, defending those guys hard and making sure they keep the puck out of our net.”
If you analyze the opponents Miller has logged the most ice time with, the 21-year-old is consistently deployed against each team’s top guns.
According to Natural Stat Trick, Miller has skated 39:06 against Evgeni Malkin, 36:06 against Kasperi Kapanen and 35:01 against Crosby in six matchups with the Penguins. He’s faced Ovechkin for 25:45, T.J. Oshie for 24:49 and Zdeno Chara for 23:16 in five games against the Capitals. And in six meetings with the Bruins, Miller has defended ‘the perfection line’ of Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak for 20-plus minutes.
It’s a workload that would be expected to fall on a veteran defenseman’s shoulders. While Miller has primarily been paired with Jacob Trouba, it appears that the 27-year-old has taken strides in his own game following a lackluster first season on Broadway because of his new D partner.
Even though Miller’s NHL career is just 31 games old, the Rangers have shown just how much they trust him.
“The team has relied on him a lot throughout the season,” Kris Knoblauch said of Miller when he was still acting head coach. “He has a lot of responsibilities on the penalty kill, the power play, playing top-four minutes, even strength. That’s a lot of heavy lifting for a young defenseman in this league. He’s not only accepted it – he’s excelled at it.”
Knoblauch, who coached Miller for the first time during his six-game stretch as head coach while David Quinn was in COVID-19 protocol, pointed out how much ice the 6-foot-5 Wisconsin product is able to cover. And in addition to being an exceptional skater, Miller has a knack for coming out of scrums with the puck, because “more often than not, he’s winning those battles just because he’s so strong,” the Hartford Wolf Pack coach said.
After scoring his third goal of the season in Thursday’s 8-3 win over the Flyers, Miller now has eight points (with five assists). His plus-11 rating leads all NHL rookies, while his average time on ice of 20:31 is third among first-year players.
The Rangers have also appointed Miller to quarterback the second power-play unit.
“Your confidence has to grow quick and you have to be adaptable,” Miller said. “My confidence has been growing each game.”