K’Andre Miller isn’t a typical NHL rookie defenseman. The Rangers are placing their trust in a 20-year-old who has never played a professional game, asking Miller to assume a top defensive pairing role alongside Jacob Trouba when they open the 2020-21 season against the rival Islanders on Thursday.
It would be difficult to imagine a more pressured debut scenario. Meetings between the Rangers and Islanders tend to be heated affairs where a single moment can be the difference between a win or loss. It’s a tough ask to send an untested debutant over of the boards to compete against the top line of an Islanders team that stretched the Stanley Cup-winning Tampa Bay Lightning to six games in the 2020 Eastern Conference Final.
Yet, Rangers head coach David Quinn has no qualms about assigning such heavy responsibility to Miller. Throughout training camp, Quinn was impressed by Miller’s decision-making abilities, end-to-end speed, and his deft usage of stickwork and size.
Recently, Quinn compared Miller’s calmness, long reach, and rangy 6-foot-5, 210-pound frame to a “praying mantis.” Every defenseman’s learning curve, development path and ability to handle pressure is unique. The Rangers wouldn’t have put Miller in this situation if he couldn’t handle it.
Five rivalry games in 11 days will represent a challenging test for Miller to prove his long-term fit at the top of the Rangers’ defensive pecking order. His first five NHL games will see two home games against the Islanders, a visit from the Devils, and two road meetings against Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
No one is expecting Miller’s earliest NHL strides to be flawless. Again, we’re talking about a kid who hasn’t played a competitive hockey game since the March 2020 Big Ten playoffs. The Rangers are prepared that there could be some bumpy moments from a fresh-faced rookie learning on the fly. Yet, there’s also a belief that Miller has a wise head on his shoulders and that any potential setback will not derail his confidence or stunt his long-term development.
Undoubtedly, the presence of Miller adds excitement to a youthful team that selected Alexis Lafreniere first overall in October and returns prodigious rookie netminder Igor Shesterkin and 2019 second overall pick Kaapo Kakko.
The time is now for these highly-skilled youngsters to justify the belief of the Rangers’ organization by demonstrating maturity and growth during an abbreviated 56-game NHL season.
Follow Sean Hartnett on Twitter: @HartnettHockey