Unlike baseball or football, hockey is a sport, usually, where you’re locked into a position from your youth. You never see high-level players switch in or out of goaltending. Sometimes you’ll see players move from center to wing as they move up in level, or defensemen switch sides depending on their team’s left-right balance. But after the age of 12 or so, with rare exceptions, forwards stay forwards and defensemen stay defensemen.
Which brings us to K’Andre Miller, someone who did make the switch from forward to defense and has turned out to be better off for it.
Miller was a highly-regarded prospect in his home state of Minnesota from a young age, and was able to crack the varsity roster of one of the most prominent teams in the state, Minnetonka, as a freshman back in 2014–15. As a winger, Miller was sheltered by his coach, Brian Urick, and didn’t play all that much. But Urick would need him more as a sophomore, and with Minnetonka’s blueline depleted due to graduation and early departures, he asked the then-15-year-old if he would be willing to play defense for the first time in his life. Miller agreed.
And it was as a defenseman that Miller turned from a potential high draft pick in the USHL to a surefire candidate for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program and a highly-coveted college recruit. Despite having spent only one full season on the blueline, Miller was selected as one of the eight defensemen for the NTDP’s 2000-born Under-17 team. He followed that up by committing to the University of Wisconsin, citing assistant coach and former NHLer Mark Osiecki’s track record of developing defensemen, including fellow Minnetonka Skipper Jake Gardiner, who made the switch to the back in his senior year of high school.
The Under-17 year is more about process than results as far as the NTDP is concerned, so don’t take numbers into account too much there unless they’re really good. The first year was sub-par numbers-wise for most of the team, but Miller improved tremendously from the start of the year to the end. He capitalized on a couple of injuries to teammates to move up the depth chart and secure a permanent spot on his natural left side, which definitely seemed to be a more comfortable fit for him. He finished third among the team’s defensemen with 17 points, and despite needing to make some improvements in his own end, was seen as someone who should go early on the second day of the draft when his time came.
But it was in his second year, his under-18 season, that Miller really established himself as a potential first-rounder. With new coach Seth Appert at the helm, the whole team took a giant step forward, particularly offensively. Miller was given more freedom to jump into the rush, something he loves to do, and was able to better utilize his size and skating ability to improve his positioning defensively. He finished the year with 29 points, third among the team’s blueliners, and greatly improved his stock at the World Under-18s where he played the toughest minutes for Team USA and helped them win a silver medal.
Although it isn’t a guarantee yet, Miller will likely be a first-round pick in this year’s draft and should get an opportunity to play top-4 minutes right away at Wisconsin. While the left side of the blueline might be too stacked for Miller to crack the World Junior roster this year, he should make it in 2020 and have a big role. I’d expect him to play two or three years with the Badgers, and jump into his NHL organization as one of their top defensive prospects. His background as a forward has allowed him to develop his offense, and his play in his own end has improved every year he’s been a defenseman. He’s one of the more underrated players in this draft, and those of you interested in prospects should keep a close eye on him.
What the Scouts are Saying
Miller is a bruising, defensive–minded defenseman…solid mobility for his size, and he does not have any issues getting up and down the ice when already moving…can have some heavy boots when starting and stopping, defending against more agile attackers but handles them by being physical and using his length…communicates well with teammates and plays responsibly in his own zone…great awareness of his defensive zone and quick decision-making ability…does not hesitate to shoot the puck when he has a lane, and his booming shot is his most dangerous offensive weapon…gets good velocity on one-timers…dishes powerful and accurate tape-to-tape passes…a confident puck carrier who does not shy away from doing so…at his best when he keeps it simple…a nasty customer around the net and is physically intimidating…a solid defensive presence while still learning the position after switching to defense from forward a couple season ago…has NHL middle-pairing, physical, defensive defenseman written all over him. - Future Considerations
Talented two-way defenseman with top-pairing upside who is committed to the University of Wisconsin. A strong skater with very good speed, Miller generates a lot of power into his stride and is starting to beat both opposing forwards and defenders to the outside. His stick and body positioning in the neutral zone are exceptional, and you can count on Miler to intercept more than a handful of cross-zone passes that he quickly transitions into rushes the other way. His ability to make clean passes on either his forehand or backhand, plus the manner in which he sharply pivots his way into bigger openings might explain how such a big and physical defenseman is only a few years removed from being a forward.
Watching Miller smother in one end and skate effortlessly in the other makes me think his learning curve is not steep at all — he plays a clean, composed game in his own zone and looks fantastic when he’s unbridled. Miller can be physically intimidating, and his strong lower half makes rubbing out forwards of any size look easy. One thing to consider is that this group of NTDP defensemen is deep with offensively-gifted puck movers, so it’s natural for a cerebral kid like Miller to focus on his defensive-zone play and act decisively with the puck only when the opportunity makes sense. This type of approach reduces haphazard tendencies to a bare minimum. Choosing your favorite draft-eligible defensemen from this year’s version of the under-18 NTDP is a lot like being asked to pick your favorite child, but don’t be surprised if a less-heralded kid like Miller has the best NHL career out of any from his defense corps. - Steve Kournianos, The Draft Analyst
Where He’ll Be Drafted
Once seen as a second round pick, there is a very good chance that K’Andre Miller finds himself getting drafted in the top-20. With the type of development he’s shown this season, Miller is the kind of prospect that could be higher on some draft boards than anyone expects. Someone drafting in the 15-20 range could fall in love with his raw talent and not want to risk passing on him.
Projection: 19th Overall