Bruins' Kevan Miller acknowledges he's 'worried' about his NHL future

Bruins' Kevan Miller acknowledges he's 'worried' about his NHL future

Kevan Miller was appreciative of being named the Bruins' nominee for the Masterton Trophy this season even though he never suited up for a game.

It was a recognition of his perseverance in attempting to return from a handful of procedures on his knee after a pair of catastrophic kneecap injuries have kept him out of the lineup for over a calendar year.

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The injuries robbed him of participating in last spring’s run to the Stanley Cup Final as he was knocked out for the entire postseason, and have relegated him to playing in three NHL games since February 2019. Now he’s been ruled out from playing for the Bruins when the NHL resumes this summer for the Stanley Cup Playoffs and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer with his career at a definite crossroads.

Despite all that, the 32-year-old Miller said that he still hasn’t entertained thoughts of retirement or given up hope that he’ll return to play in Boston or somewhere else.

“I’m grateful for all the support my friends, family, teammates, coaching staff and the organization has given me throughout this, it’s been a long haul. As a lot of you guys know, it’s taken a heavy toll mentally and physically… it’s definitely taken a toll. It’s been a long road, but I’m trying to keep things in perspective,” said Miller, during a Wednesday Zoom call with reporters. “I’m hoping to get back to 100 percent whenever that might be and get back to playing hockey.

“I haven’t gotten to that [point of giving up]. I’d be lying to you if I said that I haven’t been worried about where this is all going to end up. It’s my job and it’s part of my passion. I want to be healthy. I want to play. I know I could help the team. It’s a tough pill to swallow when you show up to the rink and you can’t skate with the guys, and it’s been so long since you’ve played in a game.”

It’s been a tough development for the Bruins, as well, who absolutely could have benefitted from Miller’s heavy, physical presence and immense strength when it came time to battle the St. Louis Blues in the Stanley Cup Final last June. Miller and the Bruins both know his presence could have been a difference-maker in a series that was even enough it came down to a winner-take-all Game 7 in Boston that didn’t go the Bruins’ way.  

In all reality, it’s going to be difficult to see Miller coming back to Boston given their salary cap situation and given they have a couple of affordable, young bottom-6 defensemen in Jeremy Lauzon and Connor Clifton. Lauzon, in particular, plays the big, strong stay-at-home role that Miller was known for and would give the Bruins the same kind of punishing, hard-hitting warrior in the defensive zone at a portion of the cap space of Miller.

But here’s hoping that Miller finds good health and a return to the NHL at some point in the future even as the odds — and Father Time — aren’t with him given the nature of some very serious knee injuries that have plagued him for over a year.

Bruins know they need a simpler approach with 'sloppy' ice conditions

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Bruins know they need a simpler approach with 'sloppy' ice conditions

Clearly the Bruins weren’t using it as an excuse for poor performances in the two games they have played inside the bubble in Toronto, but they also weren’t shying away from opinions on the ice quality at the Scotiabank Arena either.

The Leafs' home arena served as host for all Eastern Conference bubble games over the weekend, and the Bruins and Flyers were the first to play on the frozen sheet on Sunday for their round robin game, a 4-1 loss for the Black and Gold. Sunday’s matinee took place after three qualifying round playoff games were hosted on that ice throughout the day on Saturday, and clearly the frozen sheet got chewed up a bit.

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It was readily apparent when pucks were bouncing more than usual once both teams got a few minutes into the period and the Bruins stubbornly tried to play a fancy passing game when the conditions clearly weren’t favoring that approach. At one point, Charlie Coyle had a clear path to the net and a head of steam, but lost the handle when the puck simply hopped off his stick in what would have otherwise been a golden scoring chance.  

Conventional hockey wisdom dictated that the heavy usage of the Scotiabank Arena ice combined with the Toronto summer humidity would compromise the ice conditions for summer playoff hockey to some degree.

Some of the B’s certainly saw it that way on Sunday afternoon after the loss.

“We need to maybe change our mentality a little bit. We need to get away from those pretty plays. We make one pass, we put it on net and we recover a puck and then those seams for those pretty plays will be there,” said Torey Krug. “Let’s just change our mentality: One pass, put it on net and work hard to recover pucks. It’s obvious that things are bouncing out there, so we’ll change the way we approach things and hopefully it works out for us.

“[The ice quality] is sloppy. The first five minutes of periods are probably when you can make your plays and then after that it’s about putting the puck in the right spot and putting the ‘D’ on the opposing team in difficult positions to make plays with the puck. Both teams have to play on it and make plays when they’re there. [We need to] be accountable and take care of the puck [depending] on the time and score. Look at the second half of periods, it looks like it’s bouncing around out there. We need to just be smarter about it.”

Clearly it was about a lot more than the ice as the Bruins were going through the motions a bit in a round robin game vs. the Flyers that didn’t have a playoff feel to it. And it’s just as obvious that both sides are playing in the same ice conditions, and the very same “sloppy” state of the ice didn’t seem to slow down the Flyers at all in an impressive win.

Either way, a simpler approach to see the puck, shoot the puck and recover the puck might be exactly what the Bruins need after they were far too casual in most aspects of their game in Sunday afternoon’s loss to the Flyers.

NHL Playoffs: It's not panic time yet for Bruins, but it will be soon

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NHL Playoffs: It's not panic time yet for Bruins, but it will be soon

It shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody that there was no shortage of strong Bruins reactions after a disappointing opener in the NHL's round-robin tournament.

After generally not looking ready at all in a 4-1 exhibition loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets earlier this week, the Bruins lost by the very same score, 4-1, to the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday afternoon in a playoff game that wasn’t exactly meaningless.

It’s clearly not do-or-die like the hockey teams engaged in the quarterfinal series. And home-ice advantage has limited value to a team like the Bruins in a neutral site playoff like what’s happening inside the Toronto bubble at Scotiabank Arena.

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But the B’s still want to be playing quality hockey headed into the Stanley Cup Playoff rounds that await them in little more than a week, and they haven’t resembled anything close to their best regular-season selves in two poorly played losses.

It’s understandable that those around the Bruins might be getting a little concerned at this point after finishing the regular season as the NHL’s best team, and entering this postseason as the favorites to win it all.

“I don’t like to lose. I don’t think anybody on this team likes to lose. We play to win the games, so in that context I’m upset. I think we all are,” said Bruins fourth liner Chris Wagner, who scored the only goal of the game for the B’s in defeat. “Yeah, it’s not the first round [of the Stanley Cup Playoffs], but at the same time technically it’s a playoff game. I think we kind of have to look at ourselves in the mirror and get ready for Wednesday. We’re playing Tampa and if we show up and we’re not at our best, we could be in trouble.”

Everybody involved would probably feel a lot better about the Bruins if there was anything recognizable about their game right now. Instead, they have looked like they did at their absolute worst moments of the 2019-20 regular season.

The Perfection Line looked like they were moving at half-speed and showed uncharacteristic hesitancy attacking the net. All three members of the line — Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak — had just one shot on net apiece late into the third period and each finished -2 or worse while clearly lacking in execution at both ends of the ice.

In general, the Bruins passed up clear, easy shots at the net in favor of getting fancy and passing the puck too much. It’s the same malady that’s been there for the Black and Gold whenever they’ve gone through offensive ruts over the last couple of seasons, and it was definitely there on Sunday afternoon vs. the Flyers.

In general, though, it simply felt like the same kind of malaise you see out of this Bruins team from time to time when the games don’t really matter to them. It just feels like their heart isn’t into it and the Bruins aren’t very good at faking it.  

The Perfection Line struggled badly at the end of last year when they had clinched everything they could during the regular season, and essentially had nothing to play for.

Jaroslav Halak was pushed into duty on Sunday when Tuukka Rask wasn’t feeling well, and the B’s backup was definitely off his angle several times while getting beaten on long distance bombs from the Flyers. Combine that with rusty execution in every zone and with something vital like puck decision-making, and it turned into a perfect recipe for the Bruins to appear sluggish and behind the play just as things are ramping up.

After being asked three different ways what was behind the team's struggles, Bruce Cassidy finally boiled it down to the simplest terms.

“I’m thinking we need to make a friggen’ better play with the puck is what I’m thinking in some of those situations where we’re capable of better than what we were doing,” said Cassidy. “That’s what needed to be done tonight and we probably would have been out of trouble. We need to make better plays with the puck, be stronger on it and take care of it and more urgency. You can use any adjective you want, but that was the difference in the game.

“We made some mistakes with some puck plays where they came back and buried it on us quick. There were some individual mistakes, a bad line change. The good news is those are correctable. We need to structurally with the puck generate more [offense] and some of that is execution and decision-making in shooting the puck a little more rather than over-passing. Right now, we’re still a little bit in the summer hockey mode in that regard.”  

The good news — funny as it is to say — is that it’s clear the Bruins aren’t yet taking these games all that seriously.

They haven’t really been anywhere close to their best in this first two games out of the chute while knowing they had four hockey games to ramp up until their real postseason begins. One would expect the flatness to their game is going to be ironed out with the Lightning and Capitals remaining as the two round-robin opponents, and then the actual Stanley Cup Playoffs waiting for them after next weekend.

There’s no reason to believe a proud, experienced and supremely talented group of Bruins won’t turn it around given everything we know about them. But it would feel a lot more comfortable banking on that if they actually showed a shred of evidence that they were close to getting their collective game back after a five-month COVID-19 layoff.

The Bruins have two games left to get their Black and Gold butts in gear and Sunday’s loss to the Flyers showed they have a lot of work to do over the next few days if they want to get back to their level.

The panic button hasn’t been pushed yet for the Bruins, but the trigger finger is starting to get a little itchy for B’s fans after Sunday’s round-robin bummer.