It’s a new era in the NHL — the era of the salary cap. And this season more than any other previously, NHL teams are learning that the cap doesn’t just dictate what free agents they can go after in the offseason, it also means that teams are forced to rely more heavily on their minor-league prospects. To fill the void left by injuries, trades (some of which may have been salary-cup induced) teams are dipping into their AHL affiliates more often than ever before. And perhaps no player has felt the effects of this phenomenon more than Anaheim Ducks rookie Drew Miller.
“I think with last year and this year I’ve gone up and down like seven or eight times," Miller said. "So you get used to it and you learn from it each time. You take your experience you had up there each time and try to go off that and make the most of it each time you come back up. Hopefully I make more of an impression this time."
With the Ducks on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, Miller was recalled on March 19 (for the fourth time) and made an immediate impact. The Dover, New Jersey native scored a goal in his first game up – helping the Ducks go on to win the game and start what would become a five-game winning streak that has helped the team regain its swagger and vault back into the playoff race. This is a player who made his NHL debut in the 2006-07 playoffs, so he’s used to pressure.
But Miller’s effectiveness hasn’t been limited to goal scoring. The forward has also become a key component in the Ducks revived penalty kill which has killed 21 penalties over the past six games. And it’s Miller’s versatility in these key areas of the game that has turned heads.
“Obviously we like Drew Miller and we like what he brings to the table,” said Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle. “We’ve tried to find a spot for him and he’s played in different positions…and what we decided to do was give him a longer look in a couple different situations. He’s a versatile player. He can play in all four line combinations and all three forward positions, so that’s a tribute to him.”
Miller began this current recall on the fourth line moved to the first line before finally settling, at least temporarily, on the second line with Teemu Selanne and Andrew Ebbett. The change in linemates over just a few games hasn’t limited Miller’s effectiveness.
“I think you just have to be prepared to play on any line," Miller said. "It’s the same systems and same mentality so you just try to adapt to the players you’re playing with and just work hard and do what you can do to contribute to that line and to the team.”
In 18 games, Miller has scored three goals and nine points including two big goals in Anaheim’s latest five-game winning streak. While the numbers aren’t record breaking, they eclipse Miller’s production from last season (5 points in 26 games) and they seem to indicate that Miller is both comfortable and making a strong case to stay in Anaheim.
“I think it’s just another year playing pro," Miller said. "I got a chance to play a lot more offensively down in Iowa and now I’m just trying to translate my game down from there up here, not just going out there and working hard, I’m trying to be out there playing with my offense and being responsible defensively."
Miller’s offense and versatility in doing everything the team has asked him to has earned him praise from his teammates including current linemate Selanne and former linemate Ryan Getzlaf.
“He’s playing well and every time he’s been up here he’s been contributing in different ways all the time whether he’s scoring goals or been on the PK,” four-year veteran Getzlaf said.
“He’s a guy you can put in pretty much any situation," Selanne said. "He’s very smart, good speed. He’s one of those who just needs a little bit of confidence to be a really good player in this league."
While Anaheim’s recent success can’t be attributed to Miller alone, the left wing is yet another piece of the puzzle that has fallen into place for the team. The team’s other young players like Bobby Ryan, Andrew Ebbett and Mike Brown, have also helped fill in any voids and have helped turn around what could have been a disappointing season.
“I think that especially when the deadline came and there was some big roles [open] they created a bit of a buzz and that was what we needed," Getzlaf said. "Young guys have to do that. They have to bring that energy and stuff because you know some of the older guys don’t have it every day. They’ve done a good job doing that thus far and they’ve got to continue.”
Now with just nine games left on the schedule, Anaheim is on a roll with the playoffs just around the corner.
“I think that we have a lot of depth to show in any position,” said Selanne, “and that’s for sure one big strength for us and you know down the stretch, when you go to the playoffs, you need that depth because you never know what’s going to happen. If you’re able to put a new guy in and he’s ready right away – that’s huge.”