Hartnett: Rangers' Prospect Miller Creating A Lot Of Buzz At Wisconsin

K'Andre Miller poses for a photo with team representatives after being selected as the number twenty-two overall pick to the New York Rangers in the first round of the 2018 NHL Draft at American Airlines Center.
Photo credit USA Today Sports Images

Following in the footsteps of Ryan McDonagh and Derek Stepan, K’Andre Miller is the latest Rangers’ prospect to create a big buzz at the University of Wisconsin.

The 18-year-old defenseman has gotten off to an impressive start for the Badgers in his freshman year, playing a shade below a point-per-game pace with 17 points (four goals, 13 assists) through 18 NCAA games.

Wisconsin is a major program that is able to recruit many of the nation’s top youngsters. The fact that Miller is leading the Badgers in points as a freshman speaks to the “wow” factor that has followed him from Minnetonka High School, to the U.S. National Team Development Program and now to the collegiate level.

Drafted 22nd overall by the Rangers in the 2018 NHL Draft, Miller’s statistics compare favorably to first-round picks of past seasons who have gone on to enjoy NHL success. His 17 points through 18 games are superior compared to the likes of Zach Werenski, Mike Matheson, Jacob Trouba, Charlie McAvoy and Noah Hanifin in their respective freshman seasons.

The Rangers traded up to select Miller, dealing the 26th and 48th overall picks to the Ottawa Senators. It’s very likely that this decision will pay off handsomely for the Blueshirts. Miller’s combination of size (6-foot-4, 198 pounds), strength, sheer athleticism and long reach suggest that he has the tools required for a long career in the NHL.

“I think his confidence for a young player, a freshman, and the desire from within when the game’s on the line to want to be a part of it is really special for a young player,” Wisconsin head coach Tony Granato told the Wisconsin State Journal in early December.

Whether it’s Granato and the Wisconsin news outlets that study Miller up-close, or Rangers fans reacting to highlights and clips on Twitter, the hockey world is enamored by Miller’s potential.

Delivering immediately as freshman is something few are capable of. Miller has handled the step up in competition that comes at the collegiate level smoothly. He was named the national rookie of the month for October, after beginning the season with seven points in six games.

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The Badgers rank second in the Big Ten Conference with an in-conference record of 4-3-3 and an overall record of 8-7-3.

In Wisconsin’s most recent game, Miller recorded a goal and an assist to help the Badgers to a 3-0 victory over the Michigan State Spartans. Wisconsin won each game of the Friday-Saturday back-to-back against the Spartans.

Rangers Director of Player Personnel Gordie Clark has compared Miller’s mobility to Brady Skjei, and has projected him to eventually develop into a top-four NHL defenseman.

Skjei required three seasons of development at the University of Minnesota before he was ready to make the jump to the NHL. It’s possible that Miller’s path to the NHL could be on an accelerated path given his swift development.

If Miller is able to fulfill the Rangers’ expectations, they will have a cornerstone defenseman in the making in their possession and in the capable hands of head coach David Quinn.

The first-year head coach has aided the development of a pair of 23-year-old’s in Neal Pionk and Tony DeAngelo. Pionk has recorded 16 points through 28 games, while DeAngelo has tallied nine points through 20 games.

At some point in the future, Quinn will have Miller, Libor Hajek, Yegor Rykov and Nils Lundkvist vying for places on the Rangers’ blue line. McDonagh, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Anton Stralman provided the reliability on the back end that helped the Blueshirts advance to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final. All four defensemen logged over 21-minute workloads on the Rangers’ finest run since their curse-breaking 1994 Stanley Cup season.

Aside from current Ranger alternate captain Staal, the rest of that group is logging heavy minutes-per-game for the surging Tampa Bay Lightning, who have begun the season with a league-best 51 points.

Youth movements come and go. Some will lead a franchise to the promised land, while some find success elsewhere and others fall short of expectations. The Rangers have been largely drafting defensemen with the speed and skill level that’s required in the modern NHL.

It should be intriguing times when the new wave, led by Miller, arrives at Madison Square Garden.

Follow Sean on Twitter – @HartnettHockey