Not too many players started their professional hockey careers like Drew Miller.
Miller’s first American Hockey League game after leaving Michigan State in 2006 was in the playoffs with Portland. When he reached the NHL for the first time in 2007, his initial action with the Anaheim Ducks was in the postseason, including two games in the Stanley Cup finals.
“They looked at me as someone they could rely on to be responsible out there, but also bring some energy and spark to the lineup,” said Miller. “I really appreciate Anaheim putting that trust in me and giving me an opportunity to be part of something that great. Hopefully, what I learned there will help me in Tampa Bay.”
Miller, 25, comes to the Lightning with a solid hockey background and is determined to add to it. The smooth-skating left wing had an assist and was plus-3 in five preseason games, playing primarily with center Jeff Halpern, to make the roster for the opener.
Now, the goal is to stay in the NHL long term.
“You have to have smart players and his hockey IQ is pretty high,” Lightning coach Rick Tocchet said. “He’s not flashy, he’s not going to kill people [with hits], he’s not going to go on end-to-end rushes. But his hockey sense is very good and we need those types of players.”
Miller’s depth of knowledge and versatility on the ice is not hard to figure out when you look at his hockey family tree. He was the 10th member of his family to play at perennial NCAA power Michigan State, including his grandfather Butch, father Dean and brother Ryan, who is now the No. 1 goalie for the Buffalo Sabres. Cousins Kevin, Kelly and Kip Miller also played for the Spartans and later combined for 2,117 NHL games. Ryan, who Drew played against once in the NHL, and Kip won Hobey Baker Awards, as collegiate hockey’s top players.
There were no big outdoor games at holiday gatherings. It was time to relax and get away from the game. But Christmas was always fun for Drew.
“They’d bring back sticks from some of the players they played with in the NHL,” Miller said of his cousins. “That was the highlight of my winter.”
Miller was born in Dover, N.J., moved to Boston, but spent most of his youth in Michigan. He began his junior career with the Capital Centre Pride (Mich.) of the North American Hockey League. Early in his third season, Miller moved on to the U.S. Hockey League with the River City Lancers (now Omaha).
Michigan State brought Miller in for the 2003-04 season and he played 125 games over the next three years for the Spartans. Miller produced 35 goals and 41 assists in 84 games over his last two seasons. He was the team MVP, leading the Spartans to the CCHA title in 2005-06, and was named the league’s best defensive forward.
“My dad played both defense and forward,” Miller said. “He always told me to understand and know how to play defense. He said it will help you down the road. It’s just something that evolved in my game. I really took pride in blocking shots and being defensively strong.”
Anaheim, who picked Miller in the sixth round of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, signed him to an entry-level contract in May of 2006. Portland Pirates coach Kevin Dineen put Miller right in the lineup for a second-round playoff series game against the Hartford Wolf Pack.
Miller, who played 79 games with Portland (16 goals, 20 assists) the following season, said he learned a lot from Dineen, the long-time Hartford Whalers standout who was a teammate of Tocchet in Philadelphia and Lightning Executive Vice President and General Manager Brian Lawton in Hartford.
“He is a great coach,” Miller said. “He gave me a chance to progress as a player and passed on a lot of valuable things.”
The Ducks thought enough of Miller’s minor-league season to slide him into Game 5 against Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs. Miller also played in the first two games of the finals against Ottawa, subbing for injured Chris Kunitz on a line with Teemu Selanne and Andy McDonald. Miller caused a turnover to help set up his linemates for the first goal of the series and the Ducks went on to win the Stanley Cup.
“Playing with those two guys in that spot was a great experience,” Miller said. “It’s something I will cherish forever.”
Miller couldn’t quite catch on for a full-time NHL job with the Ducks over the last two regular seasons, playing 26 games in 2007-08 and 27 last season. He did, however, play 13 playoff games for the Ducks last season. Miller had two goals and an assist, playing primarily with Todd Marchant and Rob Niedermayer on a checking line.
Changes were expected with the Ducks. But Miller was surprised he was the one to be traded.
“I just had to let it sink in and think about it a little bit,” Miller said. “Afterward, I realized it’s a good move for me. I’m hoping to get a better opportunity here.”
Miller is ready to take on the challenge.
“I want to be someone they can count on to be a responsible, smart player on the ice and to work hard on every shift,” Miller said. “That’s something I take pride in and it’s something I want to bring to this team.”