On its own, the Bruins signing of rookie defenseman Kevan Miller would appear to be a proactive coup to lock up a young player that’s proven his ability to play at the NHL level.
It’s clearly part of the thinking behind the two-year, one-way deal for Miller that will pay him $1.6 million over the two seasons following the current 2013-14 season – a good salary-cap price tag for a 26-year-old defenseman that’s just coming into his own at the NHL level.
A one-way contract simply means that a player will be paid the same salary in the NHL or the AHL, but if an NHL manager signs a player to one-way deals then those new players is expected to be part of their big league roster.
The 6-foot-2, 210-pounder has two points in 16 games played for the Bruins, and has averaged 16:53 of ice time while throwing hard hits and playing the physical style required by the organization.
Miller clearly fits the bill for a blueliner who is hard to play against. He has already earned the trust of the Bruins coaching staff. That much was apparent when he logged 20:13 of ice time in his third NHL game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and was on the ice with Zdeno Chara in the final minute of regulation while Boston was protecting a one-goal lead.
That kind of trust doesn’t usually exist between Claude Julien and a rookie defenseman as it has with Miller this season. It continued on Monday afternoon against the Los Angeles Kings as Miller was on the ice in the final minutes discouraging a Kings comeback by clobbering Dustin Brown in the corner with a clean, devastating body check during a puck battle.
With the Bruins protecting a one-goal lead late in the third period, it was as if Miller was making a hard-hitting statement against Brown and the Kings that Monday just wasn’t going to be their day in Boston. That’s exactly the kind of player that Julien, Peter Chiarelli and Cam Neely all covet, and would want playing for their hockey club any day of the week.
So what does the contract mean for Miller, and for the Bruins?
The signing of Miller to two additional years for short money would seem to indicate that somebody from the current core of six defensemen isn’t in the plans following this season. While it’s true Miller’s $800,000 cap hit could simply slot him in as the extra defenseman for the Bruins over the next few years, it’s more likely the Bruins see the young defenseman as an area where they can cut a few salary cap corners.
Adam McQuaid has been a good, steady defenseman and Stanley Cup champion in Boston the past five years, but his cap hit is twice as much as Miller at $1.566 million for this season and the 2014-15 campaign.
Both are right-handed shots, and both players are big, strong physical stay-at-home defensemen willing to drop the gloves and stand up for their teammates. So there’s a real curiosity as to whether Miller makes the rugged McQuaid an expendable asset once he regains full health, just as McQuaid made Mark Stuart available in trade three years ago before he was dealt to the then Atlanta Thrashers.
It’s a move that might not be made this season given the defensemen injuries that have plagued the Bruins all season, and the requirement McQuaid play for a healthy stretch of games before other teams could truly get interested in the tough stay-at-home defenseman.
Nobody inside the Bruins organization has mentioned any kind of desire in trading McQuaid, and it would certainly be an unpopular move given how well respected the 6-foot-5 blueliner is inside the dressing room.
The other possibility for Miller’s new deal: the 26-year-old defenseman is a potential trade chip that other NHL teams might be interested in moving forward, and the two year affordable deal would be viewed as very attractive across the league. It’s similar to the Bruins signing Matt Bartkowski to a one-year, one-way deal last spring right before the B’s attempted to use the young defenseman to help close the Calgary deal for Jarome Iginla.
In hindsight the one-year Bartkowski deal ending up working out for the Bruins as the left shot defenseman has done a find job standing in the breach left by the Dennis Seidenberg injury. The B’s envision Miller enjoying the same kind of consistent success over the next few years with the Black and Gold, and there’s even some optimism within the Bruins organization that the 26-year-old could be a good match on a Zdeno Chara pairing once the playoffs begin.
Miller can make the routine plays offensively, and both his skating and shot are safe, passable skills for the NHL level. The Bruins will likely give Dougie Hamilton another shot at being the top D-man pairing with Chara once he returns from his current injury, and Johnny Boychuk is always a good option given the gritty, physical work he puts in on the defensive end.
But it could come down to Chara and Miller together as the left/right defensemen combo once the playoffs begin. The big, physical duo with some shutdown potential has put shifts together in plenty of the 16 regular season games since Miller had to face the scrutiny.
The former University of Vermont defenseman has shown few weaknesses and avoided the kind of pitfall mistakes waiting for any rookie defenseman at the NHL level. But a wise man once said that “time waits for no man”, and the Bruins are no different. Miller’s new deal could mean bad news for one of the B’s fan favorites in McQuaid, or it could mean that a trade is afoot (it isn’t at this point) for a Boston team that has a well-defined need among their top-4 defensemen.
One thing we know for certain: it’s nothing but good news for Miller, who can now completely unpack and settle into a routine with the Black and Gold after paying his dues in the AHL over the past three years.