There were some eyebrows raised when veteran Boston Bruins defenseman Kevan Miller was re-signed on the first day of free agency despite having not been healthy enough for NHL action the last two seasons.
But 21 months after he last played in an NHL game due to chronic right kneecap injuries, the 33-year-old Miller is primed and ready to open the regular season as Boston’s third pairing defenseman on the right side. Some of his Bruins teammates even said he looks “like an absolute animal” on the ice again, and that’s high praise indeed.
It’s an inspiring Boston Bruins story, to be sure, and something of a miracle when people had begun counting out the former UVM standout, and when they probably shouldn’t have after he’d already bucked the odds as an undrafted college hockey player born and bred in California.
“I’m just in a different position than I was before the injury,” admitted the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Miller. “Sometimes you take things for granted and playing in the NHL is something I’m not going to take it for granted anymore. Every day is a gift to be out there playing.”
It’s been a long time coming for Miller, who worked diligently through some very frustrating times over the last few seasons to return from the serious kneecap fractures. Adding even more to the all-the-way-back story was Bruce Cassidy’s confirmation that the veteran blueliner was ahead of Connor Clifton on the B’s defensive depth chart.
So now Miller gets to relax just a little bit and prepare for the season while fully appreciating his role as the eldest member of a very young b’s defensemen group entering this season.
“For any older guy on the team [being a mentor] is part of the responsibility. It’s a natural progression for any guy when you get older, and I’m the old guy on ‘D’ now. I’m excited to be back and happy to be around the guys playing and competing again,” said Miller, who looks like he’ll start the season in a third pairing with rookie Jakub Zboril. “It’s been a long road, but I’m feeling 100 percent. There’s an adjustment getting back, but it’s been a good couple of days. So far, so good and I’m just looking forward to Thursday.
“After four procedures, there’s some scar tissue. So [the right knee] is obviously going to be different from the left knee, but it’s something that’s very manageable. I’m super thankful for all the help and support from the trainers, the coaching staff and my teammates. It’s something I do every day getting [to Warrior] early and staying late, but it’s just a part of the process.”
The best news of all: The hard-hitting, physical D-man actually looks like his old, rugged self after a week of training camp and is going to bring a punishing, intimidating element that Boston will need on the back end with the loss of Zdeno Chara. Miller was scrimmaging against Boston’s best players last weekend and played his shutdown role with pounding effectiveness while also showing he’s going to help quite a bit on the penalty kill.
He also took one hit during the scrimmage that rolled through his legs and knocked him down, but he bounced right back up without any issues. That’s a sign Miller is ready for the physical demands of a compacted 56-game schedule where his toughness and battle-strength is going to be needed on Boston’s roster.
“Kevan has the upper hand [on Clifton] in terms of experience and he has that bite that we’ve lost with [Zdeno Chara leaving]. Kevan can give us some of that,” said Bruce Cassidy. “Our medical team thought he was further ahead in terms of recovery from his injuries than he’d been in the past, and that he should be up to speed once the season started. We’re really happy about his progression. It’s been [four] practices and two scrimmages and he looks great.
“Obviously his body is recovering well and handling it well. That’s step number one and if he can do all that then he’s got the upper hand on Clifton. Cliffy then would become more of a depth guy on the right side or he could work his way into the left side mix, ahead of some of the young guys, if he can handle that. We like the way Cliffy plays.”
The depth chart and pairings will clearly work themselves out once the attrition starts during the regular season for the Boston Bruins. But perhaps the best of B’s training camp is that Miller is healthy, skating and ready to resume his hard-hitting role after a two-year pause to his hockey career.