It has been an odd first season for Colin Miller with the Buffalo Sabres. When he was acquired from the Vegas Golden Knights in the summer, it was expected that the right-shot defender would be a key part of the Sabres rebuild of the blue line. Instead, he’s been in and out of the lineup as a healthy scratch for most of the season.
After a rough start to the season, Miller found himself in the rotation of defensemen in and out of the lineup with the Sabres having an overabundance of players at that position. In the beginning, you could debate if the healthy scratches were warranted, but as time went on, it didn’t make sense to sit Miller to play Zach Bogosian.
When he was picked up from the Golden Knights, there was a belief that he could move into an elevated role above a third pairing defender. Unfortunately, that hasn’t materialized at this point. The frustrating part is that while he may not have been able to elevate his role, he also was struggling to dominate the bottom pair minutes he was given as he did in Vegas.
However, since the beginning of December, things have started to turn around for Miller. He’s starting to perform like the defenseman that the Sabres thought they were acquiring in the summer. You’ll see below in Sean Tierney’s performance over time chart that he has taken off since the calendar flipped to December. An argument could even be made that he’s been the Sabres’ most consistent defenseman over the last few weeks.
Starting to play consistently is probably a contributing factor to the improvement in play. It’s hard to get into a rhythm and familiarity with various defensive partners when you’re consistently rotated in and out of the lineup.
Of course, I needed to find out what may be causing his improved play outside of “he’s just playing better.” While on the surface that’s correct, I want to see if there’s something else driving the turnaround.
Looking at the numbers, you can see a pretty significant change in shot possession (CF%) and shot quality share (xGF%) at 5 on 5 when you split his season starting December 1st. Lucky enough it breaks into a 20 game split prior to 12/1 and after.
The data above from Evolving Hockey shows that the Sabres are giving up significantly fewer quality shots against (xGA/60) and have seen an improvement in quality shots for (xGF/60) when he’s been on the ice over his last 20 games compared to the first 20 games.
The only area that hasn’t been improved is 5 on 5 goal differential. He hasn’t been fortunate with on-ice save percentage throughout the season, which could be contributing to the low goal differential. In particular, the last 20 games he has an on-ice save percentage of .903. You’d expect the goal differential to be improved with the lower shot count and quality shots against over that stretch if the goaltending was performing better.
The theory on Miller is that he benefited from a better quality of teammate (QoT) in Vegas than he was playing with in Buffalo and that has contributed to his poor performance early in the season. In most cases, research done by others has shown that the quality of teammates has an impact on player performance. In Miller’s case, we haven’t seen a shift in QoT from the first 20 games to his most recent 20 games. He’s playing almost the same amount of time with the Jack Eichel line now as he was at the beginning of the season. His most common defensive partner has remained as Rasmus Dahlin.
So, let’s go back to the breakdown above to see if we can find something else that could explain the change and two things jump out at you. First, he’s averaging almost exactly a minute less at 5 on 5 over his last 20 games played versus the first 20 games of the season. Ralph Krueger appears to be trying to get him back into the role he was playing before coming to the Sabres and Miller has responded to that.
The more significant change for me has been the change in zone deployment. You can debate the overall impact of the offensive zone versus the defensive zone starts on player performance, but in this situation, it can’t be ignored. Over the first 20 games of the season, Miller was getting 54% offensive zone shift starts. In his last 20 games, that number has dropped to 39% of his shifts starting the offensive zone. Basically, Krueger has shifted to relying more heavily on Miller in a defensive role.
Looking at the type of player he is, this is a smart deployment strategy by Krueger. Looking at his isolated impact charts from Micah McCurdy he has always graded out better as a positive defensive contributor than offensive.
While Miller has a hard shot, he’s not an offensive contributor. In some cases, he prevents quality offense from occurring with his knack to bury his head and hammer the puck on goal. Looking at 5 on 5 offense from the Sabres when Miller is on the ice you can clearly see right point shot concentration in Micah’s viz below.
Where Miller does contribute to the offense is in transition. He’s good at getting up in the play and creating offense on the rush with his or puck movement ability. We saw that on display the other night on Zemgus Girgensons’ goal against the New York Rangers.
Getting back to the defense, his puck-moving ability is a reason he has success in the defensive zone. He excels at exiting the puck with possession and it allows the Sabres to flip the ice on their opponent. Corey Sznajder’s tracking data this season has shown that Miller has been one of the better defensemen on the team with possession zone exits.
While some people, including myself, hoped that Miller could elevate into a bigger role he’s still a useful piece as a bottom pair defenseman. If he can get back to dominating easier minutes that he plays at 5 on 5, the Sabres will be happy with the deal they made to acquire him.
Over the last few weeks, Miller and Dahlin have played well together again as pair. Perhaps the Sabres will take that duo out for a spin again in a bigger role to see if they can be relied upon as a top-four pairing moving into next year. With the season getting away from them, the time to experiment is now.