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The Devils Should Be Leaning on Colin Miller to Stabilize the Defense

The Devils do very well during Colin Miller’s ice time. So why does he not see the ice more?

New Jersey Devils v Washington Capitals
Colin Miller is a physical, fast defenseman - and his status as a veteran should be getting him more minutes.
Photo by John McCreary/NHLI via Getty Images

When the New Jersey Devils traded for Colin Miller, I thought that he would be a fine addition to the team, and a passable replacement for Damon Severson on as the third pairing right-handed defenseman. While Miller gave myself and others a scare with his preseason play, he returned from an injury with a head full of steam. Miller has been noticeable all season, which is not usually a good thing for a defenseman. But among a defensive group that too often lacks physicality, Miller is notable because he keeps up with opponent forwards and brings the physical game to them.

But something is not right with the way Lindy Ruff uses Colin Miller. He only averages 15:27 of ice time per night — the lowest of his career. His 14:13 of five-on-five ice time per night ranks last of the Devils’ pure defensemen (I won’t count Brendan Smith’s 11:32 due to his use as a forward in several games), and he has been used for about one penalty killing shift per game, averaging 0:43 of shorthanded ice time to John Marino’s 3:12 and Simon Nemec’s 0:55 per night. In both situations, this is a mistake.

Miller and the Devils at 5v5

Nobody drives offense from the back-end better than Dougie Hamilton. Since he went down with a torn pectoral muscle, Lindy Ruff has mostly given his minutes to Simon Nemec, who has performed admirably over the past several weeks. But in terms of tilting the ice, Colin Miller has had the second best on-ice results for the Devils this season. His 57.18 CF% and 67.85 CF/60 rank first among the remaining defensemen, second only to Dougie. Meanwhile, his 50.8 CA/60 is second only to Luke Hughes. Unfortunately, Miller has not helped to translate this into too many chances — his xGF% is only 51.75, which stands sixth among Devils defensemen. The team has allowed 12.32 high-danger chances against per 60 with him on the ice, which is second worst on the team — right with Luke Hughes and John Marino’s counts.

Scoring goals and playing defense is, of course, more complicated than who gets the most shot attempts close to the net. Between Miller’s suppression of total shots against and apparent ability to send the offense on their merry way, the team has outscored opponents 18 to 9 at five-on-five when Miller is on the ice. With how poorly the rest of the team has gotten results at even strength, it would be foolish not to see this and increase Miller’s ice time.

You can see the difference in how defensemen play with or without Miller, as well. The recent Bahl-Miller pairing has been a good example of this. Bahl’s xGF% went from 49.26 without Miller to 58.17 with him, as his CF% went from 47.98 to 55.06. The Bahl-Miller pairing still lets up more high-danger chances than the Devils are generating, but their overall control over the run of shots and possession have given the Devils a 3-2 goal differential in their 80 or so even strength minutes together. Having two players that are willing to engage physically and take players out of the play on the back-end seems to be a winning strategy, if this pairing is any indication.

But Miller is not without skill. His impact was first felt when he came onto the pairing with Luke Hughes. With Hughes, the Devils had a 58.64 CF% and outscored opponents 10-7, but they suffered in high-danger chances and only had a 48.52 xGF%. I am not going to say that Miller should be re-paired with Hughes, as their last game did not go amazingly. But before Saturday, they had a 10-5 goal differential. Skill-wise, Miller features some of the skills that Luke should thrive from. He is a quick skater, has a good pass out of the defensive zone, and he can rifle slap shots from the point — this is a guy who can hit triple digits with his point shots. But Luke has been having his own problems lately — ones that go beyond who he’s paired with. Between him and Bahl, I think Kevin is the better partner for Miller. As an experienced defenseman, I trust Miller on the top pairing with Bahl more than I do a Marino-Nemec pairing, and putting Luke and Nemec back together in a less-stressful role could inject some confidence back into their game. By pushing for more Colin Miller, Lindy Ruff could do a better job of opening up ice for his young defensemen to work the offense.

Miller’s Baffling Lack of PK Time

Like I said at the outset of the article, Colin Miller barely sees the ice in shorthanded situations. With 18 minutes of penalty killing ice time, Miller ranks sixth among defensemen, ahead of just Luke Hughes, Dougie Hamilton, and Cal Foote in shorthanded ice time (though Cal should catch up in no time with Smith out). Those 18 minutes with Miller, though, have been the best penalty killing minutes the Devils have seen. With only 13 shots allowed, the Devils have given up only one goal on 1.07 expected goals against during Miller’s shorthanded ice time.

Only Brendan Smith has seen the success that Miller has on the penalty kill. At 3.33 GA/60, Miller is right behind Smith’s 3.27, though Smith has played over 73 more minutes shorthanded. But nobody has done as good of a job as Miller, of those who played more than a couple shorthanded shifts, at preventing high-danger chances against — he has a ridiculously low 3.55 xGA/60. Are these numbers the product of a small sample size? To some extent, yes, the small sample needs to be pointed out. But that is, in fact the point: Colin Miller does not play enough.

While Smith has shown us how good our penalty kill can be, the reality has been much worse. John Marino’s 9.79 GA/60 on the penalty kill is the opposite of what we want from the team’s top penalty killer, as he’s played over 140 minutes down a man. The Siegenthaler-Marino penalty kill combination was particularly dreadful, with a shocking 21.56 GA/60 in 27:49. That’s a goal less than every three minutes. Without Siegenthaler, Miller has had a more respectable 7.35 PK GA/60, while Siegenthaler had 5.53 GA/60 without Marino before going down with an injury. With a team 78.01 PK% — well below league average — Lindy Ruff could stand to win more games by reducing Marino’s penalty killing time and increasing Miller’s.

Final Thoughts and Your Thoughts

I know that the ice time split of our defensemen is probably not the number one topic on everyone’s mind right now. But Dougie is not coming back anytime soon, and Tom Fitzgerald has opted to let the LTIR relief spend itself, or something, in the meantime. If Lindy Ruff wants to take heat off of Simon Nemec and Luke Hughes, or if he wants to put John Marino back into a role he can succeed in, he’s going to need to give Colin Miller more ice time. I think Colin Miller is a perpetually-underutilized defenseman — and he has apparently been so since he put up 41 points for Vegas in 2017-18. While Miller struggled at times when he played in Buffalo, he otherwise has had a lengthy track record of solid two-way play from the back-end. There is no good reason to be giving this guy an average of 15 minutes a night.

HockeyViz

It’s not like these recent injuries have given Miller more ice time. His last five games? 17:30, 15:18, 17:05, 17:31, and 16:58. If Miller was playing 21 or 22 minutes a night, I think the Devils will win more games. Not only is Miller our best bet at 5v5 as a right-handed defenseman at the moment, but he will lessen the burden on others if he sees more ice. Lindy Ruff might not be able to control who is available to play, but he can better balance usage to get the most out of his team.

What do you think about Colin Miller? Do you envision him here next season? How do you think he has played since Dougie Hamilton got hurt? Why do you think he has been kept off the penalty kill this season? Do you think he has more to offer? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks for reading. Credit to Natural Stat Trick for the numbers and to HockeyViz for the impact chart.