Newark, NJ – Twitter saw it first, but the New Jersey Devils lost 949 games of NHL experience on the blueline between Damon Severson and Ryan Graves. That was bound to leave general manager Tom Fitzgerald and head coach Lindy Ruff a little uncomfortable despite Fitzgerald claiming otherwise. Fitzgerald reimbursed the Devils 466 games of NHL experience on July 1st, however. So, what are the Devils getting in Colin Miller?
One of the hot questions following the regular season is whether or not top defense prospect Simon Nemec will be NHL-ready in October or not. Just before the free agent frenzy, Fitzgerald spoke about how active he might be considering how he retained all of Timo Meier, Jesper Bratt, and Erik Haula, while also bringing in Tyler Toffoli. The Devils GM explained they may be able to fill their voids internally, however, they might also add.
“We have to give some kids an opportunity,” Fitzgerald said about the depth of the Devils. “That doesn’t mean we won’t try to add. But, we want to add the right pieces. We’ll look at our back end. We lose a guy like Graves, and we believe (Kevin) Bahl can replace (him). We think his upside is going to be high. What do we do on the right side (of the defense)? Who’s Damon Severson’s replacement? Maybe we’re looking for a right shot (defenseman). I’ve been told by our people that Simon Nemec is really gonna push her for a spot.”
Bahl remains an unsigned restricted free agent. However, there’s no reason to believe that deal won’t get done. He has no arbitration rights, so Fitzgerald can take his time with that. Especially considering how Fitzgerald sings praises of the 6-foot-6 defenseman.
Fast forward to the first day of free agency, one of the only transactions Fitzgerald made was in fact acquiring a right-shot defenseman. It’s almost like he told us what he was going to do.
The Devils acquired Miller from the Dallas Stars for a 2025 fifth-round draft pick. It was an easy decision to make that deal at a low cost based on Miller’s NHL experience.
The Vegas Golden Knights selected Miller in the 2017 Expansion Draft, plucked from the Boston Bruins. He led the Golden Knights blueline that season scoring 10 goals and 41 points. Vegas made it all the way to the Cup Final in their inaugural season, however, lost to the Washington Capitals. He has yet to come close to replicating those numbers since.
So, Miller is now a Devil. He has one year remaining at a low cap hit of $1.85 million. That creates a bit of a log jam on the blueline. If Nemec is almost ready, why is he here? Especially because Brendan Smith is also going to be around for at least one more season.
Well, Nemec is just 19 years of age. He had an incredible first professional year in North America. The American Hockey League named the Slovakian defenseman to the Top Prospect Team following a 12-goal, 34-point season for the Utica Comets. He even chipped in a goal and four points in six playoff games.
However, stepping into the NHL and having immediate success is rare. Luke Hughes came on strong at the end of last season and didn’t look a step out of place. The sample size is extremely small. It’s naive to not expect some growing pains. Nemec has even less experience than Hughes. So you could see how rolling out two rookies in the top six following a 112-point season might not feel right for the Devils brass.
Don’t get it twisted. Miller isn’t any sort of savior. He’s a veteran that has been there and done that. He’s been through the ups and downs of his career, mostly downs when he played for a (then) toiling Buffalo Sabres team. He fared better with the Stars, however. According to NaturalStatTrick, the Sault, St. Marie native ranked third best on the Dallas blueline at 5on5 with a 53.52 Corsi-for percentage. He also ranked on the positive side of the expected goals share with a 52.40 expected goals percentage. He recorded six goals and 21 points in 79 games. Additionally, Miller ranked third best on the Stars with a 56.40 SCF% (scoring chances for percentage), meaning he helped created plenty more chances to score than he allowed.
There’s little doubt Fitzgerald sees Miller as a two-way defenseman that can be plugged into the Devils’ system. Miller can move the puck and provide offense. However, he does have a downside. We checked in with The Athletic’s Saad Yousef who covers the Stars regarding Miller. According to Yousef, the 30-year-old defenseman could be a liability in his own end.
“Miller is a solid third-pairing level defenseman,” Youseff explained. “His biggest asset is his heavy shot, which can get through traffic if he’s set up for it and help create to chaos at the net front for others to clean up. That worked in Dallas, in spurts, given they have more than a few good net-front players, including arguably the best in the game in Joe Pavelski. However, Miller is a defensive liability. His effort is unquestioned but his discipline defensively is what cost the Stars playoff games and eventually led to him falling out of favor with the coaches, who replaced him with a lifelong journeyman defenseman in Joel Hanley.”
It appears in order for the Devils to best utilize Miller on the blueline, they’ll need to be a lot more present at the top of the opposition’s crease. Dawson Mercer did quite well scoring the majority of his goals in close. Timo Meier should be able to provide that net-front presence as well. The Devils even had Nathan Bastian as a goalie screen on occasion last season. So there are options.
However, defensively, it appears the Devils will need to surround Miller with some defensively responsible skaters. It shouldn’t be much of a problem. The majority of the 23-man roster plays a high-puck-pressure system. Therefore, recovering pucks in their own end shouldn’t be a problem. Once the Devils have it, Miller can skate the puck well out of the Devils’ zone.
Miller isn’t the perfect player, but he projects to be the right fit Fitzgerald was looking for. The Stars added the cap space they needed to sign Matt Duchene and the Devils got a veteran stopgap defenseman necessary to support the youth at a low cost.
Coach Ruff has options. However, Miller will likely start on the Devils’ third pair with Bahl. Hughes is likely to take over next to John Marino, and of course, Jonas Siegenthaler and Dougie Hamilton will remain the top pair. The Devils’ blueline should remain mobile with speed. Come September, it’ll certainly be interesting to see how it plays out if Nemec wins a roster spot. It could make Smith the odd man out. Much like Akira Schmid however, Nemec is waiver exempt and that factor alone could come into play when making a decision on who stays up in New Jersey or goes down to Utica.
The acquisition of Miller is a good move for New Jersey. Fitzgerald provided himself the security blanket necessary in case Nemec needs some more seasoning. With or without Miller, Fitzgerald claimed he was comfortable with his blueline heading into 2023-24.
“Losing players Damon, it’s hard to replace,” Fitzgerald explained. “But we absolutely believe that eventually, a player like (Nemec) can replace Damon. Maybe as quickly as this year, Hughes bypasses Damon. I have no idea. But that’s why we drafted Luke as high as we did and (Nemec) as high as we did, because of their upside. But we do have faith.”
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