One of the names you can expect to hear much more about in the coming months is Colin Miller. Standing around 6-feet tall, the blueliner has made quite a splash this season in the American Hockey League, especially after winning the Hardest Shot and Fastest Skater competitions during the league’s All Star weekend in January.
“Because we see him every day, we know what he can do,” said Manchester Monarchs coach Mike Stothers, of Miller’s AHL-record 105 mph shot. “We know he can shoot a puck – just ask our goalies. When he shot that thing, it was like, ‘Holy smokes!’ The radar gun [told the story], but we’ve talked about it as a group here, and we think we’ve actually seen him shoot the puck even harder; if that’s even possible. It’s an amazing thing, and he’s pretty unassuming about it. On that one evening, though, it reaffirmed what the rest of the league was likely suspecting and if there was anything to take away from it, guys from the opposition aren’t quite as eager now to get out and block his shots.”
Some scouts have gone as far as to say, perhaps Miller has shown the most growth of any Kings prospect this season. Yet, he prefers to just think that he’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing.
“I’ve gotten a lot of opportunity this year and that’s contributed a lot to it,” said the 22-year-old defenseman. “We have some really great players here [in Manchester] that I’ve been able to play with every night. That’s allowed me to get more confidence, getting that playing time. But, I think everybody has to transition as they come in from junior, or college or whatever, to that first year of pro hockey, I definitely did. It’s an adjustment moving up to another level, and I think that adjustment was a big thing for me. It kind of took me a year, but now it’s coming a lot easier to me and it’s going a lot smoother.”
In the summer of 2011, the year before the Kings drafted him, he participated in the team’s summer Development Camp. While thankful for the experience, he says he was still somewhat shocked it ever lead to anything more.
“Being at my first NHL camp, that was exciting,” stated Miller. “I was in L.A. and had all that L.A. gear on, and that type of thing. It was really cool to have that experience, [but] I wasn’t expecting L.A. to pick me the following June. There were a couple other teams that I thought might take me, but it’s the Draft and you’re never really sure. I was obviously very excited, though, having been out in L.A. before and knowing a little bit about what was going on there. Now, with the Kings winning two Cups in the last three seasons, you know it’s an organization that prides itself on winning. This is what they’ve been all about and the last three years they’ve been a very successful team. So, getting drafted by that team was very exciting, knowing that’s the direction they’re heading and what they’re going to expect. You have to be bringing it. You have to be expected to deliver.”
Following his selection in June 2012, Miller was certainly doing just that for his junior club, the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. His monster season included 20 goals and 35 assists, as well as winning the Mickey Renaud Trophy, given to the OHL team captain who best exemplifies leadership on and off the ice.
“That year in the Soo was a great year,” he explained. “It was my final year and I’m from the Soo, so it’s something that I pride myself on. I wanted to be a leader on that team. They had a couple tough years there, so it was do or die to finally make the playoffs.”
They did, but an early exit from post-season play officially brought an end to his junior career, and it was time to turn pro. With two seasons of AHL play now under his belt, Miller’s next goal is to join the list of former Greyhounds who have played for the Kings, including: Jeff Carter, Jake Muzzin, and Jordan Nolan.
However, that transition into becoming a legitimate NHL prospect hasn’t happened over night. It’s taken a little time, and last season, his first as a pro, definitely came with some lumps along the way.
“If you’re not playing in the lineup, it can be frustrating. But, that all comes with learning and that all comes with it being your first year in the league. Maybe over the summer I was able to reflect a little bit,” Miller added. “I also work out a lot in the summer and I shoot a lot of pucks. We have a little setup at home. [Specifically, my shot] is something that every year I’ve tried to work on and get a little better at, and it seems to be helping out. [My ability to read the game in the defensive zone] has also come a long way. That’s been an area of concern for people in my game. Even though I think that it’s come a long way, I’m continuing to work on it and I just keep trying to get better.”
Another change for Miller this season has been the man behind the bench in Manchester. Bringing in Stothers, a former defenseman, seems to have helped accelerate the learning process.
“Stots has been great, I’ve clicked with him a lot and have a lot of respect for him,” Miller remarked. “If you’re not playing well, he’s going to let you know and if there’s something he wants you to do, you’re going to do it. He’s been really great for me; he’s been giving me tons of opportunity and letting me run with it.”
Stothers himself claims the Miller’s 2014-15 coming out party is as much about continual improvement as it is about people just finally noticing how good of a player he really is.
“I think it’s a combination of both,” stated the coach. “Millsie’s made a real conscious effort to improve his overall game, become a better defender. He obviously has great skills and some tools to work with, but I think he’s really concentrated on his consistency and trying to become a better defender. Because of that, he’s able to play in all situations – whether you’re up a goal and protecting a lead, you still feel comfortable out there. I just think he’s improved. He’s matured too. That’s part of the process for these guys, when they come into the American Hockey League, to learn their craft. It usually takes a defenseman a little bit longer, but I think Millsie might be a little ahead of the curve just because of his natural abilities. It’s something he’s worked hard on, and he does so every day.”
With everything seemingly coming together, even his stats have improved dramatically (posting 19 goals and 32 assists, with three games remaining in the Monarchs regular season schedule), now comes perhaps the most difficult part about being a prospect, the hurry up and wait period. Along with Derek Forbort, the Kings 2010 first round draft pick, Miller needs to bide his time and wait for, although simultaneously earn, his possible spot in the NHL.
“The Kings are very good, but I think no matter where you go, there are going to be good players ahead of you and behind you coming up,” Miller said. “That can be a bit frustrating, [being part of a deep organization and] maybe not having that same opportunity as you would somewhere else, but there are great players everywhere, in every organization, that are dealing with the same problem. The Kings are very good at drafting players and bringing them through and developing them and making them into NHL players, so you just kind of have to stick with it and hope for the best, I think.”
If iron sharpens iron, a roster competition with Forbort next fall may not be such a bad thing, even if it won’t be very bloody.
“I’m great buddies with Forbs, he is definitely one of my closest buddies on the team,” added Miller. “You want to do well for yourself, but I was very happy for Forbs when he got called up. I hope he’d be happy for me when I get called up. It’s something that we're both working towards and hopefully we can both be there one day.”
Despite a playful tone during the question, Miller wouldn’t dare bite when asked who was better.
“I don’t know, tough question,” he said with a thick laugh. “We both have attributes than are a little bit better than each other. We’re different players, but were both trying to reach that end goal.”
Miller did offer up at least a few of his best attributes. “My skating is something I try to use and something I try to incorporate a lot into my game. My shot and my vision are also strengths; moving the puck, passing.”
Thus far, Stothers likes what he’s seeing.
“It’s healthy when you see two individuals like that, and the support that they have for each other, but they do push each other. The approach, from everybody in our group, should be that they want to be the next guy. That’s the catchphrase we’ve been using, ‘You want to be the next guy’ and I think it pushes all of them to strive to bigger and better things.”John Hoven is the founder and editor of MayorsManor.com - previously named Best Hockey Blog by Yahoo Sports and the Best Sports Blog by LA Weekly. As a past member of the Professional Hockey Writer's Association, Hoven has voted on the top NHL Awards. He has been active over the years on the NHL Radio Network, where he co-hosts the West Coast Bias show, and on Twitter as well (@MayorNHL).