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Four surgeries and 21 months later, Kevan Miller returns as senior man on Bruins’ blue line

It's been nearly two years since Bruins defenseman Kevan Miller has played in a meaningful game.
It's been nearly two years since Bruins defenseman Kevan Miller has played in a meaningful game.Matthew J.Lee

The Bruins would have to go about a dozen rounds deep, if not longer, before they used Kevan Miller in a shootout. For a defensive defenseman, though, his hands have looked a bit quicker than expected.

He connected that to his knee, rather than any stick-and-puck training he’s done over the last few months.

“If anything, I’m just in a different position than I was before the injury,” said Miller, who said he’s “100 percent” ready for Thursday’s season opener in Newark against the Devils. It will be his first game since April 4, 2019, when he broke his right kneecap.

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Four surgeries and 21 months later, he no longer feels his hockey career is in doubt. He quickly adjusted to the pace of the Bruins’ training camp, his knee responding to every push. The scar tissue has piled up, so he arrives early for treatment and leaves late. But the 33-year-old Miller happily endures those therapy sessions, believing his return is close.

“Playing in the NHL,” he said, is “not something I’m going to take for granted anymore. Every day, every shift, every practice, every time I get to put on my skates with the guys, I have a different appreciation for the game now.

“Maybe that loosens my hands up. Every day is a gift to be out there playing. I think that’s probably the biggest thing. Maybe the pressure is off a little bit and I’m just enjoying every second of it.”

Before his injury, first incurred when he crashed into the boards in Minnesota, Miller was relied on for angry-bear defense on the third pair. Last year, the Bruins used Jeremy Lauzon, Connor Clifton, and John Moore as Matt Grzlecyk’s right-side partner. Lauzon got traction by the end of the season, but there were bumps in the road.

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With Zdeno Chara gone, Miller, a 10-year pro, is the senior man on the Boston back line. He’s also a contender to fill Chara’s end-of-game and penalty-kill shifts. As he was with Grzelcyk in 2017, Miller will be asked to carry a younger partner, likely Jakub Zboril to start.

With Zdeno Chara leaving, Kevan Miller is now the senior man on the Boston defense.
With Zdeno Chara leaving, Kevan Miller is now the senior man on the Boston defense.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

“Defend hard, take care of your own game, and when it comes to what he can do for Jakub is push him every day in practice to be the best pair. Build in the habits of a good pro,” coach Bruce Cassidy said of Miller.

“We want him to be the consistent defensive presence until Jakub kind of finds his way through the league, what he can do, what he can’t do. That’s the ask for Kevan. Move the puck, make a good first pass . . . We feel they can complement each other.”

Zboril, the first-round draft pick from 2015, distributes the puck cleanly and has a heavy shot. Cassidy wants him to be “a little more assertive getting up the ice. As a young guy you want to err on the side of caution. We’ll build that in as we go along.”

Lining up for the opener

Though they did not make roster cuts Sunday morning, the Bruins’ first practice group, of 22 skaters and two goalies, contains the bulk of the eventual 23-man roster. David Pastrnak remains out until early February, at least.

Sunday’s lines:

Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-Jack Studnicka.

Jake DeBrusk-David Krejci-Ondrej Kase.

Nick Ritchie-Charlie Coyle-Craig Smith.

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Anders Bjork-Sean Kuraly-Chris Wagner.

Extra forwards: Par Lindholm and Trent Frederic.

Defensive pairs:

▪ Lauzon-Charlie McAvoy.

▪ Grzelcyk-Brandon Carlo.

▪ Zboril-Miller.

▪ Moore-Clifton.

Goalies:

Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak.

Marchand on the mend

Marchand left practice early for treatment, skipping battle drills. Cassidy called him a “morning-time decision” for a scrimmage Monday. “Obviously, not serious,” Cassidy said, “but if he misses a day when he feels he should be out there, then it’s something we’ll keep an eye on.” . . . Rask will start two of the first three games on the road trip (at New Jersey on Thursday, Saturday; on Long Island on Monday). Halak will likely take one of the latter two games . . . Bjork looks to have an edge on Lindholm and Frederic for the fourth-line left wing job. “I think he’s put on some good muscle,” Wagner said of Bjork, listed at 6 feet and 190 pounds. “Two or three years ago I used to make fun of him, because he was so skinny.” Bjork, one of the fastest straight-line skaters on the roster, earned props from Wagner for “[knowing] the importance of winning pucks on the wall, forechecking hard, having a good stick.”

Quick camp hurts candidates

The lack of exhibition games hurts players such as Greg McKegg, who has played in 185 NHL games, but is likely bound for the taxi squad, and Frederic, whose rugged style doesn’t translate well to camp drills. “You can’t really do that as much during training camp and scrimmages. You don’t want to go around burying too many guys on your own team,” Wagner noted. Frederic, he added, “skates way better than I thought he did. He’s actually pretty quick. He can make some moves down low, and use his size [6-2, 203]” . . . Despite being in the second practice group, Urho Vaakanainen remains in contention for a left-side job. Cassidy said he didn’t want to use an odd number of defensemen at practice . . . If Miller, whose base salary is $1 million, makes the opening-night roster, he earns a $250,000 bonus . . . Veteran left-shot defenseman Ben Hutton, rumored to be of interest to the Bruins, signed a PTO with the Ducks.

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Matt Porter can be reached at matthew.porter@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyports.