By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It’s really this simple: There is no more valuable commodity in the modern NHL than a young, skilled defenseman.
The evidence of this reality is immense, but for a recent example, look at the price the Washington capitals just paid for a few months of Kevin Shattenkirk’s service: two forwards, a first-round pick and a second-round pick. Whichever team signs Shattenkirk this summer will have to hand him a $50 million contract.
The Calgary Flames sent a first-round pick and a pair of second-round picks to Boston in order to acquire Dougie Hamilton, who was a restricted free agent at the time.
The New York Rangers traded Anthony Duclair, John Moore, a first-round pick and a second-round pick to acquire Keith Yandle, who had two years left on his contract at $5.3 million per year.
The list could go on, but for the sake of brevity we’ll stop here. If you want to acquire a young, skilled defenseman from outside your own system, you’re going to have to pay. A lot.
And so, when the news leaked that the Las Vegas Golden Knights would be claiming Colin Miller from the Boston Bruins, there should only have been one reaction: Yeah, no kidding.
This is not to say that Colin Miller is the next Kris Letang. Hardly. To be frank, once Claude Julien was fired and Miller started to get more ice time under Bruce Cassidy, the world saw what had kept the previous coach from dressing Miller on a nightly basis. The work he could perform with the puck on his stick was at times masterful; what he did the rest of the time was quite often questionable.
He was the best skater among Bruins blue-liners and ranked second among Bruins D-men in even-strength goals, but he was clearly not the complete package.
As a defenseman, the defense was often lacking in Miller’s game. He often skated himself out of position, and at the NHL level, that’s going to lead to problems more often than not.
But of course, Miller is just 24 years old. He’s been moderately decent at the NHL level while displaying loads of upside. And he also has a 2014-15 season with 62 points in 81 AHL games as well as a 62-point output in 60 games in his final OHL season. Stat totals in juniors and the minors don’t necessarily translate to great NHL success, but they do show the raw capabilities of Miller when it comes to generating offense from the blue line.
And considering all of that, when his name was left on the list of exposed players for the expansion draft, it might as well have been in bold. Or underlined. Or spotlighted with a big, fat yellow highlighter. He was going to be taken.
Here was a 24-year-old D-man with 100 games of NHL experience and a year of term left on his contract, available for nothing but an expansion draft pick?
For Las Vegas, who can either employ the man or flip him in a trade, it’s a no-brainer.
Likewise, protecting Miller should have been just as easy a decision for the Bruins. (That is, of course, assuming the Bruins at least somewhat value Miller.)
Instead, the Bruins made some questionable decisions for the protected list, including Riley Nash, Ryan Spooner and Kevan Miller.
On Spooner (a restricted free agent), the idea is that he might draw a return in a trade. If the rights to the underperforming forward does draw a return of any substance at all, that would be considered a bit of a surprise.
Nash is a 28-year-old bottom-six forward who is useful in a number of roles but is not necessarily a player that other teams would covet. Certainly, he wasn’t exactly considered a big-ticket acquisition when the Bruins signed him to a two-year deal at $900,000 per year last July.
But Spooner and Nash are, obviously, forwards, so they don’t necessarily belong in the conversation with Colin Miller.
Which brings us to Kevan Miller. While some spectators in the region point to the latter half of his season and his postseason performance as evidence that Miller is a valuable commodity, the reality is that his performance was only being compared to his own previous performances. He was better than he had been, yes, but all that does is make him better than the Kevan Miller of old. It does not make him better than, say, 15 or 20 other available defensemen in the expansion draft.
The mere fact that Miller wasn’t stumbling over his own feet or coughing up the puck in his own end or doing whatever the heck he was doing right here inspired people to say, “Hey, he hasn’t been a total disaster.” That is not commentary that is generally reserved for a top-tier player in the NHL.
That’s a subjective judgment, sure, but with a bit of a redundancy in skill-set (and injury frequency) between Kevan Miller and Adam McQuaid, and with $13 million committed to those two players, there would have been a salary-related benefit to increasing the chances of losing one of those players.
There’s also this aspect: The Bruins traded Milan Lucic in 2015 for Martin Jones, Colin Miller and a pick that turned into Jakub Zboril. Just two years later, the Bruins only have Zboril to show for it. Zboril had a nice third season in the QJMHL this past season, but he’s anything but a known commodity as far as being an NHL defenseman.
In showing a bit of over-commitment to some role players, the Bruins lost sight of a league-wide trend that was sure to rear its head in this expansion draft. On the scale of catastrophic decisions, it’s probably a 1.5 out of 10. But it was, nevertheless, a misjudgment.