Colin Miller has been awesome for the New Jersey Devils.
Look, there’s no debating it’s a small sample size — he’s only played two games this season.
However, in contrast to the alternative — Brendan Smith — Miller has been a breath of fresh air.
Don’t get it twisted, this isn’t Smith discourse. The 34-year-old defenseman has a role in New Jersey and is an important voice in and out of the locker room. He’s actually been superb on the penalty kill, although it ranks 20th overall in the NHL (77.2%). Sure, there are some obvious deficiencies at 5-on-5, but he still provides value. Maybe, just not in an everyday role.
Miller finally skated in his first game with New Jersey against the Pittsburgh Penguins last Thursday. With short bodies, the Devils opted to dress 11 forwards and seven defensemen.
Right away, Miller made a strong case for himself to remain in the lineup indefinitely.
The former Stars blue liner brought a Damon Severson-esque presence, connecting on excellent passes to transition the puck from danger. Speaking of transitioning the puck, he also skates fairly well with the rubber on his stick. He, potentially, has been more effective than Severson for a fraction of the cost. Again, it’s a small sample size.
The most encouraging part about Miller’s presence has been how he’s elevated Luke Hughes. The 20-year-old rookie was already playing quite well this season without Miller on the ice.
According to Natural Stat Trick, Hughes’ 56.36 CF% ranked seventh among all skaters and he accrued a respectable 53.96 xGF%.
However, with Miller in the picture, Hughes suddenly propelled up the ranks, first overall with a 62.39 CF% and a similar 51.64 xGF%.
Here’s the stark difference.
While Smith and Hughes have been paired together this season at 5-on-5, the duo has accrued a 51.58 CF% and 40.33 xGF%.
Ready for Luke and Miller?
Again, small sample, but the duo of Miller and Hughes have accrued an elite 63.16 CF% and 71.33 xGF%.
Obviously, there’s plenty of time for some regression here. However, it’s certainly an encouraging sign to see Miller adapting to the Devils’ system, especially so well with Hughes, after struggling a bit in the preseason.
General manager Tom Fitzgerald clearly did his homework on Miller. His ability to bring similar elements to what Severson provided should certainly help regulate some of the Devils’ defensive woes they’ve been dealing with.
To clarify, he’s a fine defender, but that’s not the point. Miller’s repertoire should provide New Jersey with the presence on the blue line that helps them play a heavy puck pressure/possession game. It also allows Smith to play in moderation. Less is more with Smith and he could provide stability in a seventh defenseman role.
New Jersey was missing a few bodies at practice on Monday. As a result, Miller was paired with Hughes and Smith practiced as the Devils’ 12th forward. Perhaps it was a hint that head coach Lindy Ruff will return to 12 forwards and six defensemen. If so, it looks like Miller’s assuming the sixth spot on the blue line.
Time will tell, but Miller has been awesome for the Devils so far.