Not much has gone right for the New York Rangers in the first couple weeks of the season – veterans aren’t producing, rising star goalie Igor Shesterkin is struggling and the resiliency needed to thrive in this league just hasn’t kicked in yet.
But there are some silver linings early on and those bright spots tend to skew young: Kappo Kaako looks more confident in his second year with the team, Adam Fox is one of the team’s leading scorers and rookie K’Andre Miller just scored his first NHL goal.
Miller is a great case study in development. A gifted two-way defenseman with an enviable pro frame at 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, the Minnesota native came through USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program (NTDP), where he refined his game as a teenager and got to play against some college competition before he actually got to college: the typical NTDP under-18 schedule features games against USHL, NCAA and international competition.
Because of that, Miller made a very nice transition to college, putting up nearly a point-per-game at the University of Wisconsin in his freshman year with the Badgers. Miller also made Team USA’s world junior squad that year, suffering alongside some of his teammates when a stomach bug ran through the tournament in British Columbia, but ultimately coming away with a silver medal.
Given his size and upside, it would have been understandable if Miller had turned pro after his freshman season – but the young man made the prudent decision to spend another year at Wisconsin. From a team perspective, 2019-20 turned out to be another down year for the Badgers, who posted a slightly-worse record than in Miller’s freshman campaign and winning just 14 games again.
That being said, for a player such as Miller, who was drafted 22nd overall by the Rangers in 2018, college isn’t just about wins and losses. For high-end NHL prospects, the NCAA schedule allows for ample time in the weight room and lots of practice: games are important of course, but the schedule is typically half as long as in major junior. He also got to play in another world juniors; always a great chance for growth.
So Miller came to New York this year as much more of a finished product than if he had left Wisconsin as a freshman. And while it’s early, the big defender has shown why he was such a coveted prospect back in his draft year: the kid can contribute at both ends of the ice and earned a spot on a pairing with veteran Jacob Trouba.
Miller has been a positive possession player for New York and he hasn’t been sheltered by coach David Quinn: the three forwards Miller has seen the most so far this year head-to-head are Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel. Miller has seen more offensive zone faceoffs than defensive draws, but it’s a pretty negligible margin – all impressive for a rookie in his first month in the league.
The acquisition of superstar Artemi Panarin via free agency put a different spin on New York’s rebuild under GM Jeff Gorton, but the meat of the original plan is already starting to bear fruit. Nils Lundkvist, the defenseman taken six selections after Miller in 2018, is developing well in Sweden and shouldn’t need much more time before he comes over. Vitali Kravtsov, the power forward taken with the first of New York’s three first-rounders that year (ninth overall), continues to find his way in the KHL – but bigger forwards always take longer than their mortal-sized counterparts.
On top of that, there is of course Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere, back-to-back lottery picks who are lapping up the experience in the NHL right now.
I’m sure Rangers fans would like to see more wins right now – I know the Rangers themselves believe they can play better – but it was always about the big picture and that cannot be rushed. In Miller’s development, we have the perfect example of that.