Colin Miller is a 22-year-old defenseman trying to become an NHL regular. Miller, formerly Kings property, was one of the pieces the Bruins acquired when they traded Milan Lucic.
In his first Bruins camp, Miller has not looked out of place. The right-shot defenseman has skated well, kept tight gaps, ripped off his booming slap shot, and thrown hip checks that would gain Leo Boivin's approval. If the third-year pro does not make the season-opening roster, he will not require much time in Providence before he's ready to become a full-time NHLer.
"Colin's always been able to shoot the puck," said Bruins general manager Don Sweeney. "He skates well. His first pass has generally been very good. He zips it. He does think the game on the offensive side of it, tipped 60-40, let's say, and 70-30 at times. I think he's built into his game that conviction piece of learning how to defend. It's not just about getting the puck and going. It's realizing that playing without it is equally important."
Miller is also an under-construction project, shaped by hockey's new wave of thinking. In 2011, when he was draft-eligible, 30 teams said no thanks. The following year, Miller had to wait until the fifth round before Los Angeles drafted him.
Miller played junior hockey for Sault Ste. Marie, where former GM Kyle Dubas welcomed a statistical approach. During his first two pro seasons, Miller played in Manchester, which has a history of pumping out players who play big-time roles for the Kings. Miller is partly a product of analytics and development, two of hockey's hottest buzzwords.
When he was younger, Miller didn't fit neatly into a defenseman's defined buckets — shutdown presence, offensive specialist, all-around defender. It showed in his production. During his first year in junior, Miller scored three goals and 19 assists in 66 games. Scouts' eyes centered on blue-line running mate Ryan Sproul. In 2011, while Miller went undrafted, Detroit picked Sproul in the second round.
But Dubas, the former agent turned GM, was thinking about hockey in a nontraditional manner. Dubas identified approaches and players who fit his preferences for game flow: possessing the puck, carrying the puck cleanly into the offensive zone, and erecting barriers at the defensive blue line. Dubas didn't want his defensemen to revert to the defense-first methods of rimming and chipping pucks out of danger. Dubas preferred defensemen who could control the pace of play with their skating, processing power, and puck skills. He recognized Miller as a player who could do those things. Dubas has since been hired as Toronto's assistant GM and likely successor to Lou Lamoriello.
"Kyle was awesome," Miller said. "I've known Kyle for about five years now. Right from the get-go, when he came in, he was about changing the culture. He was about changing it and using those new ways of hockey. He's been awesome. Obviously his career's taken off and he's doing great things with the Leafs. I'm definitely a big fan of Kyle Dubas."
Dubas encouraged Miller to open up his legs and think offensively. In 2011-12, Miller had eight goals and 20 assists. The Kings noticed.
LA has been very good at drafting. Under Boxford native Mark Yannetti, co-director of amateur scouting, the Kings have hit big and small.
First-rounders Drew Doughty and Tanner Pearson, befitting their draft position, have become core players. But so have players picked later, such as Alec Martinez (fourth round, 2007), Dwight King (fourth, 2007), and Jordan Nolan (seventh, 2009). Jordan Weal (third, 2010) and Michael Mersch (fourth, 2011) are pushing to be the next ex-Monarchs to become full-time Kings.
Yannetti and his group grabbed Miller 151st overall in 2012. The pick paid off. The following season, Miller doubled his production to collect 20 goals and 35 assists in 54 games.
As a first-year pro, Miller broke into the AHL under the watch of Mark Morris and Freddy Meyer, who have since left Manchester. Morris and Meyer, the former Boston University defenseman, had help in preparing Miller for pro hockey. The Kings have invested as much as any organization in hiring a development staff.
Former Bruins GM Mike O'Connell was one of LA's four development staffers to get his hands on Miller. Morris and Meyer handled the day-to-day coaching. O'Connell complemented their work by going deeper with Miller and investing time that Morris and Meyer didn't have. Miller became more responsible defensively. His active stick got heavier. He learned how to use his body to protect the puck.
"It takes time to adjust to the lifestyle, to everything — the speed, the play, the defensive game, offensive game, everything," Miller said. "They were very, very helpful in that. Hopefully now it will start to pay off."
Last year, when Morris and Meyer left, Mike Stothers and Chris Hajt took over. The things Miller learned from the coaches and development staff as a rookie took deeper roots. Miller finished the season as Manchester's third-leading scorer (19-33—52 in 70 games). He saw big minutes on the power play.
In the playoffs, Miller continued to progress. He went 2-8—10 in 19 games, playing an important role in Manchester's Calder Cup victory.
The foundational work that went into Miller in Sault Ste. Marie and Manchester will now be Boston's gain. Other teams are noticing the process that has turned lesser-known, low-round picks such as Miller into potential NHLers. Analytics and development promise to give Miller more NHL company.
Julien, Bruins stick with zone
By Claude Julien's count, about half of the NHL's teams now play man-to-man defense. Tampa Bay was one of those teams last year. The Lightning advanced to the Stanley Cup Final by playing man-to-man.
Julien does not plan to join that growing number this year.
"We're not sold on man-to-man yet," said the Bruins coach. "Maybe two years from now, whether the system changes or different things happen, we might say, 'Hey, we've got to get man-on-man here.' But right now, our defensive game still works. Our scoring chances against are still low. We're sticking with it."
Julien points to the results the Bruins had in the second half last season. By then, Julien praised his players for improving their movement in the offensive zone. Defensemen pinched down the walls without hesitation. The forwards were good about keeping a third man high.
Julien rolled a string of clips to prove his point. In one instance, Julien showed a Bruins-Flames game from last year. Calgary was playing man-to-man. Because of the Bruins' movement, T.J. Brodie, one of Calgary's best defenders, was out near the blue line. During a net-front scramble, with Brodie out of the picture, ex-Bruin Dennis Wideman was the only defenseman left to protect the house.
"That's a D up there, so now they're stuck with the forward in front," Julien said, pointing at his laptop screen. "That's Wides and another forward in front. And that's Brodie. We want him out there."
Teams with good skaters are better equipped for man-to-man. They can close down gaps and recover when things get hectic in the danger areas. But the danger is when natural defenders drift out of position by fulfilling their assignments.
In the collapsing zone defense Julien prefers, the formation is more compact. Defensemen stay tight within the dots. The center comes down low to support, but is also told to pop out to defend the third man high. Wingers take away the walls and serve as reinforcements in front of the net.
"Our guys still prefer having it our way," Julien said. "Less running around. You're less chasing and running around. When it does get a little kind of scrambly, you just go back to your spots, protect the middle, and start out again. They prefer that. I prefer that. That's my philosophy."
Canadian dollar affects the future
On Tuesday, the NHL's board of governors convened in New York. One of the featured speakers showed the level of concern the game's bosses have regarding the league's financial future. Avery Shenfeld is the managing director and chief economist of CIBC World Markets. In his presentation, Shenfeld addressed the board's skepticism regarding the Canadian exchange rate. Shenfeld is an expert in his field, but even he could not provide a dependable forecast on how the rate will track. The Canadian dollar is currently worth 76 cents.
"It's the reality we live with," league commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters after the meeting. "In my two decades-plus of doing this, I've seen the Canadian dollar lower and I've seen it over par. It's just something we deal with and the system takes account for it. It's not something that people are concerned about on a daily basis. It's something we deal with."
The exchange rate will affect 2015-16 revenue. In turn, this will determine whether the cap ($71.4 million this season) will rise next year.
But the other area in which the exchange rate affects business is regarding expansion.
Investors from Quebec City were one of two groups to pitch their plan during the meeting. Las Vegas is the other prospective landing spot. Quebec City has two challenges: a small market and the exchange rate. Las Vegas is not worried about the latter.
It's why Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, who serves as board chairman, did not project optimism regarding imminent expansion.
"There's a lot of content there. There's a lot of capability there," Jacobs said of the two prospective franchises' pitches. "I don't know if there's a desire or will within the board of the existing franchises for expansion yet. They both made pretty interesting proposals. Both have very legitimate arenas in place and organizations in place. There's a capacity out there. I don't know if there's a will."
The league could make more than $1 billion in expansion fees from Quebec City and Las Vegas. But introducing the two teams would not solve conference imbalance. The Eastern Conference would still have two more teams than the West — a ridiculous continuation of something that is already absurd. The league's pipe dream is for Seattle to join Las Vegas as a landing spot. This would give both conferences 16 teams. And it would eliminate the worry of Quebec City's income being diluted because of the exchange rate.
"Think of it this way," Jacobs said. "The cap in Canada is $100 million now. That matters."
Fabbri catches Blues’ attention
St. Louis plays a powerful, grinding game. Robby Fabbri is not a typical Blue. The 5-foot-10-inch, 178-pound Fabbri is 19, trying to crack Ken Hitchcock's veteran lineup. During training camp, the skilled wing gave the Blues a much-needed jolt of youth, energy, and enthusiasm. Fabbri, the team's first-round pick in 2014, will always have a hard time battling in the corners and in front of the net against bigger men. But Fabbri is so fast and quick he can evade some of the tangles that trap thicker but slower players. Fabbri has one season of junior eligibility remaining. But it's possible he sticks up top because of his talent.
Net issues for Senators
The Senators gambled this offseason by re-signing Andrew Hammond and trading Robin Lehner to Buffalo. Ottawa couldn't make it through training camp without a goaltending issue. Hammond suffered a groin injury on Thursday. Craig Anderson's backup will be out for two weeks. The Senators will have to start the regular season with former BU goalie Matt O'Connor backing up Anderson, who also has a history of injuries. Ottawa's intention was to break O'Connor into pro hockey in Binghamton. Now O'Connor might have to make his NHL debut earlier than expected.
Vesey holds leaguewide intrigue
Twenty-nine teams are monitoring not just how Jimmy Vesey plays at Harvard in his senior season, but what the North Reading native will do upon the conclusion of his college career. Nashville picked Vesey in the third round in 2012 and went after the left wing hard last year. But Vesey chose to remain in school, which was a smart decision all around. He'll continue to develop under coach Ted Donato. He will be closer to a Harvard degree, which long term is richer currency than any entry-level NHL contract. He has a good chance of making the Nashville roster immediately after turning pro. And if Vesey declines to sign with Nashville, he will become unrestricted next August, free to sign with any club. Vesey (32-26—58 in 37 games last year) should be in contention for the Hobey Baker Award again this season. What awaits him after that could be even better.
Carlo is on the right track
Brandon Carlo completed a solid first pro camp by signing his entry-level contract with the Bruins. The right-shot defenseman, picked 37th overall in 2015, will play in all situations for Tri-City, his junior team. There's a good chance that Carlo, who turns 19 on Nov. 26, will get the nod for Team USA in the World Junior Championship. He was one of 10 defensemen to participate in the National Junior Evaluation Camp in August. He'll have an even better shot of making the roster if Carolina does not release Noah Hanifin for world junior duty. During training camp, the 6-5, 203-pound Carlo was not far off Dougie Hamilton's skating level. Hamilton plays a more aggressive and instinctual game. But Carlo projects to be a top-four NHL defenseman.
Nashville sent Leominster native Steve Moses to the AHL on Wednesday. The four-year University of New Hampshire forward was expected to debut in the NHL this season. Moses lit up the KHL last year with 36 goals for Jokerit Helsinki. Moses, an undrafted free agent, did not have to clear waivers to report to Milwaukee . . . Anton Lander scored a hat trick for Edmonton on Tuesday. The center scored one of his goals by banking the puck into the net off the back of Anders Lindback. These days, it's almost easier to score from behind a goalie than in front. More players should be looking for these chances . . . Last year, the Bruins placed a tablet on the bench for the coaches to use. It might get more action this year with the coach's challenge, but Claude Julien will most likely rely more on communication from his coaches . . . Three ex-Bruins failed to land jobs after signing tryout agreements: Daniel Paille (Chicago), Andrej Meszaros (Colorado), and Corey Potter (Arizona). Brad Boyes, meanwhile, earned a one-year, $700,000 deal with Toronto off his PTO. Boyes has landed work off tryouts for his last two organizations.
Two hockey legends, Mario Lemieux and Patrick Roy, share the same birthday (Oct. 5) and they turn 50 on Monday. The Hall of Fame contemporaries combined for seven Stanley Cup championships and 21 All-Star Game appearances. They also played each other 22 times in their NHL careers, and each can stake claim to holding the advantage in their personal rivalry.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.