On his first day practicing with the Rangers — the actual Rangers, as opposed to the unsigned draft picks invited to the club’s annual summer prospect camp — K’Andre Miller literally fell down the first time someone passed him the puck.
Eventually, the nerves went away. Miller, the 20-year-old defenseman out of the University of Wisconsin who signed with the organization in March, grew into a steady presence who didn’t look at all out of place in the Rangers’ Training Camp 2.0.
Miller, who signed a standard three-year, entry-level contract that will begin in 2020-21, is not eligible to go to Toronto on Sunday as the Rangers restart their 2019-20 season with a best-of-five qualifying series against the Carolina Hurricanes. But he left an impression on the organization with his skill set and the intelligence he displayed in his cameo appearance.
“You could see the nerves early on, but I think he’s really kind of acclimated himself and played with an awful lot of confidence, kept things simple,’’ coach David Quinn said of Miller, one of three first-round picks by the club in 2018. “You see the physical tools he has. He’s a special physical specimen and he’s a guy that understands what he’s capable of doing. And I love the fact that he didn’t try to do too much. I thought he let the game come to him.’’
“He is a player that we think has a great future with the Rangers,’’ team president John Davidson said of the 6-4, 211-pound Miller. “When we found out . . . we were allowed to bring one player that could come to your camp and then would not be able to travel to Toronto, we talked about it. You can never have enough defensemen . . . and he’s a perfect fit for us. K’Andre Miller’s a big part of our future. This is an ideal time to get him here to help him get himself acclimated to how we play the game.’’
Miller’s career with the Rangers got off to a shocking, disturbing start. On a Zoom call with Rangers fans in early April, a couple of weeks after he signed his contract, someone typed a racial slur over and over and over on the call’s chat feature. Miller is biracial, the son of a Black father and white mother. The Rangers and the NHL launched an investigation into the incident, but the perpetrator was not found.
Miller didn’t speak about the incident for two months before issuing a statement on Twitter in June, in the aftermath of the George Floyd tragedy, when the nation was seeing protests demanding racial justice and police reform all over the country. In his statement, he spoke of feeling as if he had “never been fully accepted by either the Black community or the white community’’ and how, throughout his hockey career, he always has been “one of the only people of color’’ on the teams he played for.
He also talked about how being drafted by the Rangers — they traded up to get him with the second of their three first- round picks — was one moment when he “didn’t have to be defined by the color of my skin, but rather on my hockey skills, athletic ability and character.’’
Said Miller, “This is how it should be all the time.’’
The Rangers drafted Miller because he was big, could skate, could shoot and could make plays at both ends of the ice. They believed he could be a future cornerstone of their franchise, and they got a little taste of the possibilities during this mini-training camp.
“What I really like about K’Andre’s game is how quick he’s thinking, recognizing plays, his hockey sense,’’ Quinn said. “His physical skills are obvious to everybody. I mean, he skates really well, he’s got great size, he’s got great reach. But I like the little small-area plays he’s been able to make, and how quickly he’s been able to move the puck.’’