This summer, when the Buffalo Sabres acquired Colin Miller from the Vegas Golden Knights as their first big move of the offseason, fans were generally excited. For the modest cost of a second and fifth-round draft pick, it appeared that Jason Botterill had found a solid value transaction to potentially bolster his defensive top-four.
Following the Sabres’ impressive 8-1-1 start, the team has gone into a tailspin, losing 10 of their last 12 contests. During the latter stretch, Miller has been a healthy scratch six times. This is odd for a few reasons. For one, Miller’s performance this season, while not spectacular (which we’ll dive into shortly), certainly hasn’t warranted an extended period as the odd man out on the team’s blue line.
Even stranger is the fact that, despite having clear plans for him in the defensive top-six (as evidenced by the fact that they parted with valuable draft capital to acquire him less than five months ago), he’s had the shortest leash on the back end. Compounding on an already bizarre situation, during his appearance this Tuesday on WGR 550’s “The Instigators”, Elliotte Friedman reported that Miller’s name had been brought up in recent trade discussions. Miller appears to be serving as a healthy scratch again tonight against the Calgary Flames, as he rotated in during the morning skate.
There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s start by examining his performance in comparison to his defensive contemporaries. As previously stated, he hasn’t been impressive overall, but very few of the Sabres’ defensemen have to this point.
When Brandon Montour returned from his hand injury, Ralph Krueger mentioned that there would be rotations on the team’s overcrowded back end. In the nine games since that statement was made, it hasn’t been much of a “rotation” with Miller serving as an extra for seven of them.
While he does rank toward the bottom in most advanced statistical categories, there’s nothing damning enough in that regard (or in respect to the “eyeball test”) that warrants singling him out on a regular basis. His relative xG rate of -1.46, and relative Corsi mark of -2.73 are rough, but many of his counterparts have fared similarly in that regard.
Could an argument be made that’s he’s been the team’s worst defenseman this season? Perhaps, but certainly not by a significant margin.
If you look at Miller’s ice time this season, it’s similar to what he averaged with Vegas in 2019-20, and his zone-deployment rate has been basically even. He has spent most of his time with Rasmus Dahlin who was having a very rough start to the season (creating a negative adjusted-Corsi impact on everyone he was paired with prior to Montour’s return to the lineup), so part of his early struggles could be attributed to that. He’s also not being sheltered on the third-pairing against lesser competition anymore, so perhaps there’s an adjustment taking place there as well.
Either way, he’s left something to be desired.
The point here isn’t that the Sabres have desperately missed what Miller brings to the table (although he is an above-average zone-exit entity, an area where Buffalo has struggled), just that the organization’s handling of a player they actively sought out this summer is troubling, especially when you consider how early it is in his first campaign with a new team. Even stranger is the fact that he’s now the topic of trade speculation on top of it.
Let’s talk about why this might be the case. You could point to his performance thus far, but the sample size is pretty small for Botterill to be ready to up and quit on Miller already. Obviously, the Sabres have a glut of defensive assets at their disposal right now, and they need to find a way to unload at least one of them, especially if they hope to acquire help at forward via trade mid-season.
Maybe Miller is one of the few Sabres defensemen who is receiving significant interest. Still, it’s hard to believe that Buffalo would get back a better return than their original investment. It’s not like his stock as a trade asset has increased since July. Maybe he could be included as a part of a larger, more splashy trade, but it’s tough to say for sure.
If the potential for a trade isn’t the driving force behind why he’s been continually scratched recently, one has to question whether Botterill and Krueger are on the same page in terms of the acquisitions the GM has made, versus how the coach is assembling his lineup. Unless they’re saving Miller for a trade that is to be announced in the near future, it’s hard to believe that Botterill is on board with how he’s being used (or in this case, not being used).
If he is fully on board with what Krueger is doing as it pertains to Miller, then his responsibility as an asset manager must be questioned (even more so than it already has been). Smart managers don’t part with a second-round pick (and more) to ultimately leave that player on the sidelines.
xG and Corsi Graphs courtesy of Charting Hockey
Deployment Data courtesy of Natural Stat Trick