LOS ANGELES — While forwards Tanner Pearson, Tyler Toffoli and Linden Vey are with the Los Angeles Kings, filling in for injured veterans, including Jeff Carter and Kyle Clifford, other Kings prospects remain with their respective teams, working to make it to the National Hockey League someday.
Although Pearson, Toffoli and Vey have not likely made it to the NHL to stay, they have made it there faster than the vast majority of young players who often toil in the minors for several years before getting their chance, if they get the chance at all.
One player who seems to be on a more normal timetable is defenseman Colin Miller, who was selected by the Kings in the fifth round (151st overall) of the 2012 NHL Draft.
The 21-year-old, 6-1, 195-pound native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario performed well during the Kings’ rookie camp and rookie tournament, not to mention their training camp. But with the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League this season, he has struggled.
“He’s still learning his way in the American league,” said Monarchs head coach Mark Morris. “He sat out last game, and in all likelihood, won’t play [on November 13, a 3-1 win over Norfolk]. He’s got to clean up his own zone, and be more defensively aware.”
“Offensively, he’s got some gifts,” added Morris. “He can pass the puck, and he’s a good skater, but he’s learning how to defend, and manage the puck a little more effectively.”
Miller knows that his defensive zone play is not where it needs to be.
“With Colin, he acknowledges where he falls short,” Morris noted. “When he’s fresh, he’s extremely good, but when he gets tired, his game dissipates—needless icings, shooting pucks into shin pads, not making good choices, guys being able to make a head fake and lose him in the defensive end—those are all [issues].”
“We’re working on his stick position, trying to get him to realize that he’s got to play with his stick on the ice more,” Morris added. “It’s hard to defend when you’re carrying your stick across your waist. When you’re in an athletic position, you’re able to be a better defender, and you’re also ready to make better offensive plays, too.”
As Morris indicated, Miller knows he has a lot to work to do on in the defensive zone.
“Defensive zone [coverage] is something I can improve on, and it’s something that I’m trying to improve on,” he said. “I know that, and it’s something I’m trying to work on, trying to get better at every day.”
“I don’t know if there are any major issues,” he added. “I think it’s just paying attention to details—making sure that you’re in good position, and making sure that you’re aware of where the puck is, and where the guy is, keeping your stick down, and in the right area.”
Miller’s struggles are likely related to the fact that this is just his first year in professional hockey, and like so many young prospects, it takes awhile for them to learn to listen.
“With him, some of the times he’s had his best games, [defenseman] Jeff Schultz has been a big reason why he played well early on,” said Morris. “As of late, he’s kind of lost his way, so we’re hopeful that when the door opens up, his game will pick up, and he’ll start to learn from some of the shortcomings that he’s had so far.”
“He’s thick, he’s a strong kid,” added Morris. “I’ve seen him fight, I’ve seen him do some things, but just staying mentally alert and making better choices are a couple of things we’re trying to drive home right now. There’s a little bit of tough love going on, trying to snap him around. He’s a good kid, but we’re trying to iron out some of the wrinkles in his game.”
Through 15 games this season, Miller has scored a goal (a power play goal) and has added five assists for six points, with a -1 plus/minus rating, and eight penalty minutes. Those numbers, along with the defensive zone shortcomings he is currently struggling with, are the exact opposite of what he did in his final year with the Soo Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League last season.
2012-13 was Miller’s third season with the Greyhounds, and he certainly made the most of it. Indeed, he enjoyed a breakout year, scoring twenty goals and contributing 35 assists for 55 points, with a +13 plus/minus rating, and 78 penalty minutes.
“I [got] a lot more opportunities, I got playing time in all situations, and having to be a leader on that team was something I took great pride in,” Miller said about his successful 2012-13 season with the Greyhounds. “I [also] had some great players who I played with, and they definitely contributed to me getting those points. I just had a great year.”
As Miller alluded to, he wore the captain’s “C” on his Greyhounds jersey last season, and it was his work on and off the ice earned him that honor.
“I had a great relationship with Kyle Dubas, who [is] the general manager there,” said Miller. “He told me that they’ve been happy with everything I did in the previous years, and how I went about my playing, and my role in the community. I think that contributed to [being named captain].”
Something that stands out like a sore thumb is that Miller was passed over in the NHL Draft in 2010 and 2011, before he was selected by the Kings in 2012.
Given that Miller’s numbers in 2010-11 and 2011-12 pale in comparison to his 2012-13 statistics, it was clear that Miller simply was not on the radar of NHL scouts until he demanded their attention last season.
Miller was philosophical about the situation.
“I think the drafts are hit and miss,” he said. “I think I just got missed [in 2011]. I don’t know what happened, but I still ended up going to L.A., and the rest is, kind of, history, so it ended up working.”
Miller followed up his breakout season with the Greyhounds last year with a strong showing in the Kings’ rookie camp and training camp a couple of months ago. But with no chance of making the big club’s roster this season, Miller was among the first group of players assigned to the Monarchs on September 21, 2013.
Despite that, Miller’s time in the Kings training camp was not a waste.
“Whenever you’re going to a camp, it’s a good experience,” he noted. “You try to take everything that you can from it, and learn as much as you can. That was my second camp with the Kings, and every time you’re there, you’re just trying to learn, and take it all in. I just tried to do my best, and see what I could do.”
“It was a good measuring stick, because those guys are pretty good,” he added. “It showed me that I still have some work to do, but it makes you more excited to want to get to that next level, and stay up there.”
Before departing for Manchester, Miller was given his marching orders by the Kings coaching staff
“[They said] just one thing,” said Miller. “Continue improving, keep getting better every day, and keep working hard. That was their main message—be strong in the defensive zone, use your abilities up ice, and do the best that you can do.”
But even while doing the best he could do, the differences between playing in the OHL and the AHL quickly became apparent.
“The biggest difference in the AHL from the OHL is not only that everybody’s bigger, faster and stronger, but they’re going to capitalize if you make mistakes,” Miller explained. “You’re not going to be able to get away with it if you’re missing a man in the defensive zone, or if you’re turning pucks over. It’ll be in the back of your net.”
“Everybody’s at the same level,” Miller elaborated. “There are great, standout players, but compared to the OHL, where each team has their [standout] guys, everyone [in the AHL], on every team, is solid, and they can really play.”
Despite having to comes to terms with the stark differences between playing in major junior hockey in Canada and the AHL, Miller indicated that he is making progress on adjusting to the higher level of play .
“It’s been good so far,” said Miller. “It’s another level, coming from the OHL, and moving to the American Hockey League. It’s another step up, so there’s been some adjusting. I’m kind of getting used to it, and I’m just trying to take it and run with it, and keep improving in every game.”
Miller is also making on progress on the off-ice transition, going from living at home with his family while he played with his hometown Greyhounds, to being on his own now, even though he has had to switch roommates.
“I was originally living with [Kings defenseman prospect] Alex Roach, but he ended up having to go back to junior, so now I’m living with [defenseman] Andrew Campbell,” Miller noted. “It’s been great. It’s been a good transition. I don’t mind it. I like living on my own.”
“I’m cooking my own meals, doing the laundry—all that fun stuff,” Miller added. “It’s a bit of a new experience. I didn’t do a lot of cooking back home. But it’s going fine—chicken, chicken with pasta, steaks, fish. Nothing too crazy.”
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