COLUMBUS, Ohio — Colin Miller is in an unusual position. The 23-year-old Bruin could break camp as a top-pairing defenseman alongside Zdeno Chara. Or the ex-King could be a healthy scratch.
Training camp, as such, is not exactly a peaceful time.
“Been some ups and downs here,” Miller said before Thursday’s second-to-last preseason game against Columbus. “But that’s what all camps are. All camps are pretty intense.
“You go into it kind of with that unknown feeling of what’s going to happen. You work hard. You get through it. We’ve got another couple days here of camp and exhibition games. So hopefully they’ll go well.”
The Bruins acquired Miller in June 2015 as part of the Milan Lucic trade because of his offensive ceiling. They like what he can do in the offensive zone.
The right-shot defenseman pounds the puck from the point. The trajectory of his shot was unpredictable last year, but there was little question about its speed and heaviness. Miller is good at distributing the puck to open teammates. The Bruins signed Miller to a two-year, $2 million extension because of that ceiling.
Miller showed off his shot in the first period of the Bruins’ 2-1 win over Columbus. Miller hammered a slapper on net that Matt Beleskey deflected past Sergei Bobrovsky for the Bruins’ first goal. Miller landed a team-high four shots on net in 20:47 of ice time while being paired with Christian Ehrhoff.
The Bruins were not as hot on Miller’s performance in the other two zones for stretches of last season. One of Miller’s strengths is his mobility. But it worked against him at times when he wandered out of position, especially to unload hip checks on wings along the wall. Even when Miller connected, he’d take himself out of the play with his clock-cleaning intentions.
The coaches emphasized better positioning and less reckless defensive-zone play. Neither was good enough for a full-time stay last year. Miller dressed for 42 NHL games, but he was also sent down for 20 refresher courses in Providence.
This year, Miller and his blue-line mates are being instructed to think, skate, and play faster in their own zone. They’re supposed to close on opponents quicker, both with their sticks and bodies. Miller’s skating should make this doable.
“It’s been all right,” Miller said of the adjustment. “It was a long offseason there. So I think getting back into the swing the first couple games was definitely a little rusty. I certainly feel better now, so that’s good. Just taking baby steps here and moving forward.”
In theory, Miller’s skating, puck-moving ability, and booming shot make him a good match as Chara’s right-hand man, a role he filled for part of his first season in Boston. But Miller has yet to convince his bosses he’s a credible full-time top-pairing defenseman.
Rookie Brandon Carlo is pushing Miller by being strong, fluid, and more of a physical presence in the defensive zone. Carlo, however, has yet to play an NHL game.
The 19-year-old would be best served starting his pro career in Providence, where he appeared in eight games (seven regular season, one postseason) last year after completing his junior season.
Depending on Carlo’s development, Miller is most at risk of seeing his shifts go away. Kevan Miller and Adam McQuaid are the two right-side incumbents. Both have earned the trust of their coaches. They will take regular shifts unless one is traded.
Colin Miller hasn’t reached this status yet. His bosses are still practicing patience.
Carlo was caught wide on Brandon Saad’s third-period power-play goal. But the rookie was otherwise excellent defending against Columbus’s varsity roster in 20:02 of play. The Bruins will not rush Carlo. But if he is sent to Providence, he won’t need much time before an NHL recall.
“His experience is maybe lacking,” coach Claude Julien said. “But tonight, he showed some pretty good things. He got beat on that power-play goal on the inside. That’s one mistake. But it certainly doesn’t overshadow the 20-30 good things he did tonight. I thought he was really solid tonight. I liked his game. I don’t think there’s any concerns whether we’re going to send him down because he’s 19. We’ll make those decisions when time comes. But he’s shown us he’s certainly holding his own in this league so far.”
Anton Khudobin submitted his strongest bid to serve as Tuukka Rask’s No. 2 on Thursday, stopping all 11 shots he saw against Columbus in the Bruins’ 2-1 preseason win.
The two-time Bruin started the night at Nationwide Arena and looked sharp until he was replaced by Malcolm Subban at 9:14 of the second period. Khudobin made technically textbook stops, but he also relied on his quickness to keep his net clear of pucks. The Blue Jackets dressed most of the roster that will play against the Bruins for real next Thursday in the regular-season opener.
Rask is likely to start the preseason finale against Philadelphia on Saturday. The Bruins could use some stability behind Rask. Neither Jonas Gustavsson nor Niklas Svedberg was dependable when Rask needed rest. Khudobin, who spent most of last season in the AHL, should be able to spell Rask and perhaps even push for starts for stretches of the season. Khudobin’s presence will also allow Subban to continue developing in Providence and possibly approach the ceiling expected of a former first-round pick.
The Bruins, up 1-0 when Khudobin left the game, took a 2-0 lead at 3:53 of the third. Jake DeBrusk charged down the right side and flipped a backhander to Seth Griffith for a net-front tap-in. Saad answered by turning Heinen around and snapping a wrister through Subban’s pads at 6:49.
The Bruins scored the only goal of the first period. The Jackets killed off a Boone Jenner boarding penalty. But four seconds after Jenner stepped out of the box, the Bruins scored an even-strength goal at 2:34. Miller hammered a slap shot that Beleskey, while cutting through the high slot, deflected past Sergei Bobrovsky. The Columbus goalie was also screened by Heinen.
Carlo played stout defense throughout the game, but especially in the first period. The 19-year-old foiled two offensive rushes with solid stickwork. Carlo will be best served starting his first full pro season in Providence. But Carlo’s active stick, mobility, and hockey sense will not keep him in the AHL for long.
Bruised blue liner
Julien classified Kevan Miller as day to day after the defenseman was diagnosed with a bruise on his left leg on Wednesday. Miller was hit by a deflected Andrei Markov shot on Tuesday . . . Sean Kuraly had two shots and was credited with four hits against his hometown team. Kuraly is from nearby Dublin . . . Regulars who stayed home instead of traveling to Columbus included Chara, McQuaid, David Backes, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Torey Krug, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, Tuukka Rask, and Ryan Spooner. All are likely to get a final tuneup against Philadelphia in Saturday’s preseason finale at TD Garden . . . Jimmy Hayes had no shots in 11:44 of play while skating with Kuraly and Dominic Moore. Danton Heinen (no shots in 19:18) is pushing for Hayes’s third-line spot . . . Zac Rinaldo was the healthy scratch . . . Ehrhoff had an assist in 17:51 of ice time. The veteran defenseman, in camp on a tryout basis, also expects to play on Saturday. Ehrhoff’s competition includes John-Michael Liles and Joe Morrow, the left-shot defensemen behind Chara and Krug.