K’Andre Miller has been playing a role beyond his years in the NHL since his first season with the Rangers in 2020-21.
It’s easy to forget the 22-year-old defenseman is just entering his third season in the league. Averaging roughly 20 minutes a game over two seasons in a top-four spot with some penalty killing responsibilities isn’t always the norm for a player of Miller’s age and experience. But that’s all Miller has known.
The conversation surrounding the Rangers’ youth this season has largely been rooted in the need for certain players to improve and step into bigger roles. Miller’s role, however, is expected to be the same. But the possibility of the 6-foot-4, 217-pounder continuing on his upward trajectory can only benefit the Rangers.
“I could compete with any of those guys,” Miller told The Post on Friday, citing the confidence he gained from the Rangers’ run to the Eastern Conference Final, over which he averaged nearly 25 minutes a game. “All those forwards, all those top lines that [Jacob Trouba] and myself were paired up against. We had some good success against those guys and that was a fun experience overall.”
Miller, who took major strides on both sides of the puck last season, went home to Minnesota to train in the offseason. After taking about two weeks off the ice, Miller worked out with Ryan Lindgren and Brady Skjei, a former Ranger and Minnesota native. Miller put on five pounds, he said, in focusing on his conditioning this summer.
While he was pleased with his play toward the end of last season and into the playoffs, Miller still described 2021-22 as “up and down.” He said he focused on further utilizing his massive strides to his advantage during the offseason. His ability to go end to end as swiftly and skillfully as he can — evident when he danced around MacKenzie Weegar in a highlight-reel goal on Nov. 8 — is part of what makes Miller such a unique offensive force.
But a major part of Miller’s jump last season stemmed from the game coming in a lot slower than it did during his rookie season.
“That was probably the biggest thing from the first year to the second year, just the speed of the game,” he said. “Obviously, the first year you have a bunch of guys who are older, bigger and stronger than you. So I think it’s just about comparing yourself to them and putting yourself in that position and trying to do what you do that got you there.”
As a result, Miller was also able to get more comfortable jumping up on the play on offense. His hope is to do more of that, he said, by tapping into his offensive instincts. He has already done enough to be trusted as a top-four defenseman. Now, Miller can continue working on rounding out his game on the offensive end, which has already seen some promising flashes.
Miller’s three-year entry-level deal will be up at the end of this season, which will likely put the cap-strapped Rangers in a difficult situation if he has a major breakout year. Even a repeat of last season would give Miller significant leverage.
“He’s a bigger, stronger kid,” Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant said. “We talked about [Alexis Lafreniere], [Filip Chytil] and those guys, they’re young players. They played really well last year and you know, let’s go to that next step. They’re good, young hockey players. What do you call the next step? To star? A superstar? I don’t know.
“Aim [Miller’s] got a chance to be a hell of a hockey player. I think you guys all saw that last year.”