A day after the Bruins announced a much-maligned four-year contract extension for defenseman Kevan Miller, B’s general manager Don Sweeney held court with the media to equal parts explain/defend the $10 million deal. Sweeney pointed to the very high character of a hardnosed player in Miller, and the relatively low mileage given that he’s played only 159 games at the NHL level.
There was also mention made of the room to grow in Miller’s game, though it’s difficult to imagine a much higher ceiling for a 28-year-old player than what the former UVM produced showed in 71 games last season.
“Kevan brings incredible character. His signing provides us with the necessary depth on our defense that all teams need. His relative low-mileage, having just played 160 games, we identified that we think Kevan has room for continued growth and development,” said Sweeney. “We certainly saw that in his play this year when he had an expanded role. Relative to the free market place, very, very comfortable with where Kevan fits into our group, and this provides us with the opportunity to explore the marketplace in every way, shape, or form, in having Kevan signed.”
Here’s the reality: Miller is a 5-6, bottom pairing defenseman on a good team, and a top-4 defenseman on a team like last year’s Bruins that finished a weak 19th in the league in goals allowed. The five goals and 18 points last season were solid career-high numbers for a player in the middle of his hockey prime, but he barely averaged 19 minutes of ice time per game as a front top-4 defenseman. Miller struggles with some of the fundamental needs in today’s NHL if you’re going to be a top-4 D-man: the tape-to-tape passes aren’t always accurate, there’s intermittent difficulty cleanly breaking the puck out of the defensive zone and Miller was exploited by the other team’s best players when paired with Zdeno Chara at points last season.
Certainly Miller has done some good things racking up a plus-55 rating during his three years in Boston, but executives and officials around the league were a bit surprised by the 4-year, $10 million contract extension. It’s viewed as a slight overpay in terms of both salary and term, but it’s more the redundancy of the contract that’s befuddling to some.
“Miller is certainly a rugged guy, but you already had one of those at roughly the same value in Adam McQuaid. I believe that you can’t win if you have both McQuaid and Miller in your top 6 because they are both No. 6 D’s in my mind,” said a rival NHL front office executive polled about the Miller contract. “You look at the playoffs and the direction that the league is headed in, and you need to have big, mobile defenseman that can quickly move the puck up the ice. You have too much of the same thing with Miller and McQuaid, and I think you can’t win with that in this day and age.”
The one facet of the four year Miller contract that might make it okay for some Bruins fans: the tacit connection to the Jimmy Vesey sweepstakes. According to several sources around the league, the Bruins taking care of Miller now will very likely have a positive impact on their chances of landing Vesey when he becomes a free agent on Aug. 15, and makes them the front-runner for the Harvard standout’s services. Both Miller and Vesey are represented by the same agent in Peter Fish, and those are the kinds of behind-the-scenes connections that many times factor into free agent signings and trades around the NHL.
So many, this humble hockey writer included, may owe Sweeney a slight apology if paying a $10 million premium for a bottom-pairing defenseman in Miller now pays dividends in landing a stud forward like Vesey that’s drawing interest all around the league.
Joe Haggerty explains why he thinks the Boston Bruins signing Kevan Miller may have a connection with them trying to sign Jimmy Vesey.
BOSTON -- This isn't exactly a state secret: The Bruins are on the lookout for a puck-moving, top-pairing defenseman who can help their transition game, and aid them in more easily breaking the puck out of their own zone.
The B's basically had two top-4 defensemen on their roster last season -- Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara were the only two on the Boston roster who topped 20 minutes of ice time per game -- and tried to fill in the blanks with Kevan Miller, Adam McQuaid, Dennis Seidenberg and several other young blueliners. Their success, or lack thereof, is reflected in the fact they finished 19th in the league in goals allowed.
So general manager Don Sweeney said during a Wednesday conference call with reporters that the team is in search of a “transitional” defenseman, and will do whatever is necessary to acquire one.
In Sweeney's words, the Bruins will be “aggressive” and pursue improving the hockey club “in any way, shape or form".
There are plenty of signs that Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk could figure prominently in Boston’s trade pursuits this summer, and free agents Keith Yandle and Alex Goligoski would be immediate upgrades in the “transitional defenseman” department. But the Bruins were also on a mission to get a “transitional defenseman” last season as well, and came up empty (aside from early season flameout Matt Irwin and 35-year-old journeyman John-Michael Liles acquired at the trade deadline).
They had grand plans to trade up in the first round of last year's draft and nab Boston College's Noah Hanifin. But -- after dealing Dougie Hamilton to the Calgary Flames for three 2016 draft picks -- they were unable to move into position to draft Hanifan.
So it’s clear that making efforts to land that elusive defenseman, and actually closing the deal, are two extremely different things.
Toward that end, Sweeney also talked about looking for defensive help from within the organization.
“We’ve had talks with (Krug, a restricted free agent) and we’ll find, whatever term that ends up being . . . we’ll find a contract for him," said Sweeney. "But we’re looking for balance. We’re also looking for players like Colin Miller to take the next step. We’ve got younger players that will hopefully push, and that’s what you want.
“You want the depth of the organization to be there for the younger players to push somebody out because they’re ready to play . . . (young players such as) [Matt] Grzelcyk and [Rob] O’Gara. And [I] just came back from seeing [Jeremy] Lauzon play. You know [we're] very excited about the trajectory of that player and the possibility (of his making the NHL roster) down the road, depending on what his development curve looks like and when he gets in here and [starts] playing against the men.
“We’ve got pieces in place that will hopefully push the group that we currently have and that’s what you want. You want that internal competition that players feel like they better perform."
But, he added, "we’re also looking outside the marketplace because we need to continue to transition the puck better.”