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A long, winding road: Kevan Miller continues to beat the odds to be an NHLer

Despite facing many hurdles along the way, Miller is thriving this year for Boston.

Pittsburgh Penguins v Boston Bruins Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Despite the fact that Kevan Miller will never win a Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman (or even be in the top 20 in voting), Miller has got to be feeling like he’s won an even bigger trophy every game he suits up for Boston.

Throughout his 10 years as a professional hockey player, and long before he became a Bruin, Miller has been proving people wrong and overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

His latest return from career-threatening injuries might be his greatest accomplishment to date.

Let’s take a trip down memory to remind you just where Kevan’s come from, shall we?

A long and winding road to the NHL

Before Miller even laced up a skate, he faced a preordained barrier to becoming a player in the NHL: he was born in California.

According to Quant Hockey, there have only been 45 players in NHL history who were born in California.

Currently, there are nine hockey players in NHL from the Golden State. In comparison, Minnesota has the most NHLers of all states at 44, while the province of Ontario in Canada currently has active 155 NHLers.

Relatively speaking, hockey’s popularity still has a long way to go in California, and opportunities to make it to the next level are limited.

His amateur hockey career didn’t start off particularly well either.

After failing to make his local AAA midget team, Miller opted to play high school hockey all the way across the country at Berkshire School in Sheffield, Massachusetts. The only problem is that when he arrived, there wasn’t a spot for him on the team.

Instead of letting the disappointment and loneliness he felt from being so far from his family get to him, Miller didn’t give up and quickly moved his way up from the junior varsity team to the varsity team.

After a couple solid years at Berkshire, Miller once again saw the door closing on his hockey dream. No NHL scouts or college scouts had Miller on their radar.

Once again, instead of giving up Miller found a way to continue playing hockey. He stayed an extra year to play for Berkshire, and his overall game took off. College scouts were now interested in the more complete player he had become, and was given the opportunity to take his talents to the University of Vermont.

Not the most skilled player on the Catamounts, Miller’s competitiveness and work ethic (not to mention his frightening physical presence) helped him to become the heart and soul of the team, and later earned him a ‘C’ on his jersey.

By his last year in Vermont, he had developed a strong defensive game, but his skating ability still made him invisible to NHL scouts.

In fact, if the coach of the Catamounts hadn’t been a friend of Bruins GM Don Sweeney, and Sweeney hadn’t been on a “I need American college players” kick, it’s likely we wouldn’t have ever seen Miller in the NHL.

Nonetheless, Sweeney agreed to offer Miller a tryout contract with the Providence Bruins, and Miller was not about to let this opportunity slide.

Miller worked extreme hard to improve his skating and play with the puck. And while it took Miller a few years to secure a regular spot with the Boston Bruins, he would finally find his way to the NHL during the 2013-2014 season, playing 47 games for the Bruins.

Early career struggles

Although Miller made a big impression with his ferocious body checks and willingness to drop the gloves with anyone when he first arrived, Miller’s deployment as a top four defenseman with Dennis Seidenberg revealed the cracks in the young defenseman’s game.

Bruins analyst Kirk Luedeke had this to say about Miller at that time:

“He lacks the high-end talent to be a firm top-4 NHL D, even if the analytics indicate he has a chance at it. Realistically- the more he plays, the more people will see him get burned, but by the same token, he suppresses a lot of chances he simply doesn’t get credit for because human nature means that those with an axe to grind will dwell on the mistakes.”

Here’s what this site had to say about him during the postseason grades some years ago, and it wasn’t especially kind:

“...In evaluating Miller’s season, I can’t look past how poor he was relative to his fellow number six defensemen. While a very strong part of the Bruins PK, he doesn’t offer much beyond that and it only does so much for my overall opinion of the year.”

Despite finding the NHL a big step up from the AHL, Miller continued to do what he had always done: work hard and get better.

In a short period of time, Miller’s game had really seemed to taken a step forward as his skating had vastly improved, and just when he was about to become a permanent fixture in Boston the injuries started.

Injury after injury after injury

2014 -2015

In October of 2014, in a fight with Sabres forward Nicolas Deslauriers, Miller dislocated his right shoulder, forcing him to miss a month of hockey. When he returned that season, his shoulder was still not right, and Miller had to have season-ending surgery in February.

2015 - 2016

This season was Miller’s healthiest season to date, as he only missed 11 games due to injuries (upper body injuries and a knee injury.)

2016 - 2017

In a preseason game against the Flyers, Miller broke his hand, forcing him to miss the first 19 games of the year. Later that year, again against the Flyers, Miller suffered a concussion and missed 4 more games.

2017 - 2018

Miller missed 14 games with various injuries, including an upper body injury in February that resulted in him missing 9 games.

2018 - 2019

In a very scary incident in November, Miller was hit in the throat by the puck, resulting in a significant larynx injury that kept him out of the lineup for 13 games.

In March of that same season, Miller blocked a shot and suffered an upper body injury that resulted in him missing 16 more games.

Finally, in the 81st game of the year, Miller fell awkwardly into the boards, breaking his right kneecap.

After having surgery to repair the knee, Miller was getting set to return to action, just in time for the Stanley Cup Finals, and he broke his kneecap again.

2019 - 2020

Despite numerous surgeries, stem-cell and platelet-rich plasma injections, countless hours of rehab and strength training, Miller missed the entire NHL season.

While everyone involved with hockey knows the physical abuse that these athletes go through each and every season, with amount of damage that Miller’s body experienced over a short period of time, compounded by the frustration that comes from injuries not healing properly, no one would have been surprised if Miller had called it a career at this point.

But as his story clearly shows, Miller is not a quitter.

After a fourth and final procedure to fix his right leg, and even more rehabilitation, Miller was once again ready to play hockey...but he would need a contract first.

Contract uncertainty

Fast-forward to October 9th 2020, the day free agency opened and Bruins fans were extremely excited about the prospects of their team landing a player like Taylor Hall or Alex Pietrangelo, or at least re-signing Torey Krug.

But that’s not what happened at all. Instead, the Bruins’ first transaction that day was re-signing Kevin Miller to a 1-year contract, a move that had many Bruins fans wondering why.

And just like Miller had every reason to walk away from the game of hockey after his knee injury, fans had ever right to question this move: why would Don Sweeney and Co. re-sign a guy who hadn’t played a single game the previous season? Especially, when the Bruins would need ever dollar they had to land a big free agent name or keep Krug.

The move seemed to make little sense at the time.

But as Miller has done his whole career, he’s silenced his critics with his game. The performance that Miller has shown thus far this season is nothing less than remarkable, especially for a guy who couldn’t even skate not too long ago.

Miller is definitely not going to be mistaken for Charlie McAvoy any time soon, but he’s doing the job that’s been assigned to him, and doing it well.

When Miller is not destroying people with huge hits or protecting his teammates, he’s back to playing solid defense and helping the Bruins to be one of the best defensive teams in the league.

As stated at the top of this article, Miller will never win a Norris Trophy for being the best defenseman in the league, but there’s a good chance his name will be in the conversation to win another trophy: the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, which is awarded to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey.

And frankly, it’d be hard to say he hasn’t earned it.