By Matt Kalman
In case you weren’t paying attention, Kevan Miller saved the Bruins’ season.READ MORE: Business Booming At Auto Repair Shops Due To Lack Of New Cars
Now if you haven’t fainted or lost your mind in a fit of laughter, let me follow that up by admitting the above statement about the oft-criticized Bruins defenseman is an exaggeration. Nonetheless, Miller’s return to the lineup helped make sure Zdeno Chara’s absence wasn’t a disaster at a crucial point of the season and Miller has clearly improved his game at an important time in his career and an important point in the Bruins’ organizational plan.
Miller doesn’t have a point in seven games this season but he has a 51.61 Corsi For percentage. He hasn’t been a positive Corsi player since the 2013-14 season. He’s also doing the proverbial things that don’t show up on the score sheet, like breaking the puck out of the defensive zone and into the offensive zone with a purpose. There have been fewer icings and turnovers off his stick.
“I think as a whole I think our team’s moving it pretty well,” Miller said after practice at Warrior Ice Arena on Tuesday. “So since coming back the guys have made my job pretty easy, they’ve helped me a lot. I said when Zee went out, when John-Michael went out, you can’t replace those guys. Collectively we had to come together and I think we did a pretty good job of that.”
When presented with the notion that his return after missing the first 19 games of the season because of a hand injury saved the season, Miller just stuck out his concrete chin and scoffed. The guy refuses to take any credit for the Bruins’ surprise success (15-10-1 on the season, 4-0-1 in their past five games, 3-2-1 without Chara) or even his own contributions to the impressive results the Bruins have produced.
Nonetheless, the guy deserves some love. After all, the Bruins were supposed to be in the toilet this season in terms of team defense and instead they’re ranked fourth at 2.19 goals allowed per game. If your answer to everything positive about the Bruins is just to say “Tuukka Rask” I won’t argue with you. But what fun is it to just give the goaltender all the credit? There are others who deserve praise, especially leading goal scorer David Pastrnak. At the defensive end, though, there are also players not named Rask that deserve a share of the accolades. Of course, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand have been their responsible selves, but also the addition of Dominic Moore and Riley Nash has bolstered the forward corps’ defensive play at even strength and on the penalty kill.READ MORE: Red Line Train Derails At Broadway MBTA Station
Then there’s the back end, where Brandon Carlo developed into a top-four defenseman faster than anyone expected (even when Chara was out of the lineup), Chara has regained his form as one of the best shutdown defenders in the NHL and Torey Krug has showed marked improvement now that he’s healthy again.
And then there’s Miller, the man so many love to hate. He’s off to an excellent start, not just in possession numbers. He’s averaging 19:36 of ice time since returning from a hand injury and has yet to take a penalty. He averaged a team-high 2:25 of shorthanded ice time during Chara’s absence and the Bruins’ penalty kill went 13-for-15. Plus he showed his versatility by making the switch to the left side as a right-handed shot and even stayed on that side after Chara’s return on Monday.
“I think the confidence level, he’s more assertive,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said. “He’s not afraid to give us some offense. He’s one of the best players at bringing the puck in from the blue line and skating it in to the corner and bringing it in to the O zone, where other guys will just dump it in.”
At 29 years old, it didn’t seem like Miller would have time to improve his game and make the Bruins look wise for signing him to a four-year contract extension worth $2.5 million per season. But he worked on his skating and puck moving over the summer and the results are evident. The Bruins’ system tweaks have also helped because Miller’s able to be more aggressive and the Bruins are making more plays in the neutral zone and not spending as much time defending deep in their own end.
Julien used Johnny Boychuk as another example of a late bloomer that became a regular NHL contributor. Will Miller get better than what he’s been to start this season and become another Boychuk or another Dennis Seidenberg or any type of defenseman that will play in the top four on a Stanley Cup championship team? Doubtful. But every team needs versatile defensemen with the ability to play up in the lineup when necessary. Every team needs players that stick up for teammates and keep teammates accountable in the dressing room. Every team needs veterans to mentor younger players and hold a space until prospects are ready to assume a role in the NHL.
What Miller is giving the Bruins right now is just what they need to be competitive in the present and well worth the money general manager Don Sweeney decided to spend, even if Miller won’t be bragging about his contributions any time soon.MORE NEWS: Andrea Campbell Seeking Commitments Before Endorsing Mayoral Candidate
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.