One of the clear objectives of this offseason for Jason Botterill was to continue the reconstruction of the Buffalo Sabres blue line. He added Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju so far this summer. While these two moves alone will improve the roster, Botterill, may not be done with the Sabres rumored interest in Jake Gardiner and possible Rasmus Ristolainen trade.
If the Sabres do move on from Ristolainen, they’ll need to have someone take his spot as the top right-shot defenseman. The two obvious choices are Miller and Brandon Montour. At the end of last season, we saw Montour get a few games playing big minutes and he handled himself well in that small sample. Miller has also had some small windows playing in a top-pair role but primarily has been utilized as a second-pair defenseman.
There has been concern voiced by some that Miller was sheltered by the Golden Knights the last two seasons in an easy role and he may struggle in an elevated role with the Sabres. While the role he was asked to play in Vegas will probably be easier than what he’ll be asked to play in Buffalo; there’s no need to be concerned.
The chart above from Micah McCurdy shows how Miller has primarily played second-pair minutes with the Golden Knights and a brief period in a top-pair role to start last season. Miller was elevated to a larger to start last season due to Nate Schmidt being suspended the first 20 games of the season. People have varying opinions on how the first quarter went for Miller last season.
In terms of production, he registered six points and only two of those came at 5 on 5. His production level may not have been ideal during that stretch and his on-ice goal differential was 44.4% to go along with that according to Evolving Hockey. Outside of those two measurements, his underlying numbers were good during the first 20 games of last season at 5 on 5. Miller had a 54.5% CF% and a 54.8 xGF% per 60 minutes.
Overall, he was probably a break-even impact player in that role. Moving beyond that 20-game sample, I wanted to see how Miller measured in games where he played more than 17 minutes at 5 on 5 over the last two seasons, as well as how he performed in games that he had below a 50% zone-start rate. He’ll likely be asked to play around that much in time on ice for the Sabres at 5 on 5 and will likely have a lower ZSR than the 59% he had with the Golden Knights last season.
Over the last two years, he’s played 48 games combined over 17 minutes at 5 on 5 according to Evolving Hockey. Using EH’s game log data, I calculated his on-ice Corsi, expected goals, and goal differential per 60 minutes at even strength. Miller graded out well in all those metrics over the last two years. He was a net positive in all three categories as the chart below shows.
Playing at least 17 minutes at even strength only 33% of the time (48 of 147 games) doesn’t give the best sample size in making any concrete statements on whether he can handle top pair or slightly below top pair minutes for a sustained period. On the flip side, it does show that when asked to play this role, he doesn’t show signs of difficulty in playing at a quality level.
The good news is with the improved blue line that Botterill has built, the Sabres won’t need one pair to play a heavy number of minutes. Instead, they can split most of the ice time between the top two pairs, with the third pair playing in a little more of a sheltered role. A 40%, 35%, and 25% breakdown of ice time between the three pairs makes sense for how the roster is currently constructed.
Miller played at least 15 minutes at even strength in 63% of the game in the last few years. If on average 50 minutes of a 60-minute game is played at even strength, that would mean Miller played at least 30% of the game at even strength for most of his time in Vegas and was a positive impact player in doing so.
The other area that will likely change for Miller is how he’s deployed with the Sabres. The Golden Knights used him primarily in offensive-zone start situations. In Buffalo, he may be deployed at closer to a 50% zone-start rate. Especially if they want to a shelter a third-pair that will have a young player like Jokiharju on it.
Pulling games where Miller had a ZSR of 50% or lower over the last two years show more positive numbers at even strength. He was a net-positive in goal differential, Corsi and expected goals in all three categories except in the 2017-18 season. As the chart below shows you, he had a negative measurement in on-ice goal differential.
Miller is one of the more underrated puck-moving defenders in the NHL. His ability to exit the zone with success should allow him to continue to have success if he’s given more defensive-zone starts. He shouldn’t see heavy dZS with the Sabres, but more than what he saw in Vegas should be fine to improve the Sabres ability to get out of their own end.
Quality of Teammate
One area that always comes up in these types of discussions is that Miller would have played with a higher quality of teammate with the Golden Knights than he will be with the Sabres. While from an overall team standpoint that may be true, it’s possible he could see an improved QoT in his direct defensive partner.
If Miller is placed in a top-four role with Rasmus Dahlin as his partner on the left side, he’ll be with one of the best young defenders in the game and it’ll likely only improve his impacts. Last season, Miller’s two most common defense partners were Jon Merrill (35.11%) and Brayden McNabb (29.46%) according to Evolving Hockey.
It’s also likely the 26-year-old will see a higher quality of competition, but some research has shown that the quality of teammate has a better impact on a player than the quality of competition that a given player will face.
Overall the Sabres and fans shouldn’t have any concerns with Miller seeing an elevated role. He’s played at a high level in his current usage and has shown the ability to excel in a larger role when given the opportunity. He has the skill set to help the Sabres improve in getting the puck out of their end of the ice and an overall improvement defensively.
It’ll be interesting to see how Ralph Krueger utilizes the Sabres new blue line when Botterill is finally finished with the reconstruction. He has a young blue line of puck movers that set the Sabres up to be a team that can attack the game and control the puck for the first time in a long time.