Examining the Future of Drew Miller in Detroit

Next summer is setting up to be a challenging one for the Red Wings front office. Riley Sheahan, Danny DeKeyser, and Petr Mrazek will all be RFAs due raises. Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader are UFAs due big raises if Detroit wants to keep them around. Finally, Andersson, Ferraro, Richards, Quincey, and Miele are all RFA/UFAs that may or may not be brought back. Sure, there's quite a bit of money being freed up (especially if Richards and Quincey are let walk, which seems very likely), but there's a lot that needs to be spent without even considering the UFA market which is currently projected to be stronger than the past two summers.

One name I didn't mention in that list is pending UFA Drew Miller - fan favorite 4th line winger and rightfully so. He's making 1.35M this season, and while I doubt he gets a significant raise from anywhere, Detroit does need to make a decision on him. I think a lot of fans assume that bringing him back at a similar price tag is a no-brainer, but I'm here to suggest that Detroit ought to consider letting Miller walk next summer, as crazy as that might seem. I love Drew Miller, but hear me out before bringing out the pitchforks.

Making a Case for a Replacement

Drew Miller is 31 years old, and he'll turn 32 mid-season. That means that if he's brought back for the 2016-2017 season, we're looking at him being 33 years old by the time the playoffs roll around. In Detroit we've been blessed to watch ultra high-skill players like Lidstrom continue playing at a high level deep into their careers, but this is the part where I remind you that the aging curve for a 4th line penalty-killing winger with no hands is usually far harsher.

Not only that, but Miller's decline has already been evident at even-strength. Miller used to be a guy who was valued for being a utility winger - in a pinch he could play 2nd or 3rd line winger with only minimal drop-off, but unfortunately that's just not really true anymore. Without getting into too many details, there's a lot of evidence he simply doesn't do anything to push possession at 5v5. I don't intend on re-opening the Glendening debate from yesterday, but Miller not pushing possession much wouldn't matter as much if his center was better at it, but the two of them together make for a line that is fairly one-dimensional in its abilities (strong DZ play, weak NZ and OZ play). The fact is that Miller's value right now is mostly predicated on his PK ability and that fact that he's "okay enough" and consistent at even strength.

Finally, the money is a real issue. This past season, Drew Miller cost 1.35M against the cap. As an easy comparison, Landon Ferraro had he been with the team all year would have made $600k. The question for the Wings then is can they get a guy like Ferraro to a level that at least replaces what Miller can provide for $700k cheaper? That doesn't seem like a big savings, but read that first paragraph again - that $700k could be the difference between losing or keeping Abby or Helm. Alternatively, it could be the difference between winning or losing one of those UFAs available next summer. Finally, as much as I don't like to think about the idea, it could mean the difference between risking losing Sheahan/DeKeyser/Mrazek to an offer sheet or keeping them. Given all this, it's at least worth exploring to see if he can be replaced internally or not. If he can, doing so is a no-brainer. If he can't, then do what you can to keep him.

What About the Penalty Killing

Can Detroit really replace what he brings at penalty killing? This is the question on your minds right now, and it's a fair one. My answer is two-fold: 1) maybe, hard to say, but 2) they probably don't need to. Let's talk about penalty killing and how much it really matters, because I think we as hockey fans have a tendency to overrate the difference in impact between excellent penalty killing and good penalty killing.

The Red Wings the last 5 seasons have been ranked 17th, 12th, 12th, 18th, and 17th in penalty killing. The reality is that this hasn't exactly been an elite unit - it's merely been a good enough unit. Not only that, but there's very little difference between a top penalty killing team and a middling one. It's extremely difficult to statistically quantify individual contribution on the penalty kill, but the reality is penalty killing can have a lot to do with luck - how many weird deflections go in against your team? How good is your goaltending? Minnesota Wild have been ranked 1st, 27th, and 18th the last 3 seasons. Did their PK skill really change so dramatically, or is it possible they've just had some weird luck?

Let's say that Detroit's setup last season of PK1: Glendening, Miller, PK2: Helm, Andersson is worth a net 2 goals prevented on the PK as opposed to a setup of PK1: Glendening, Andersson, PK2: Helm, Ferraro. Keep in mind that Ferraro has more offensive skill, so he's more likely to sneak in a short-handed goal than Miller (Detroit was dead last in this department last season), so even if Miller is worth 3 goals prevented but -1 goal scored, it comes out to 2. What kind of even-strength contribution would be needed to offset this? Lest you think 3 goals prevented is a small amount, he was on ice for 30 PPG against, and a 10% drop is very big, especially when goalies stop 90% of the shots that make it to the net. Calling it 3 goals is honestly optimistic.

Stepping away from PK for a moment, at 5v5 Drew Miller was on the ice for 43.3% of all shots on goal (not corsi) this past season. Let's say for sake of simplicity we find that Ferraro would be able to bring that up to 46.3% with the exact same tough minutes/usage. That would result in 21 more shots taken and 21 fewer shots against. Detroit scored on 6.2% of 5v5 shots with Miller on ice last season and saved 93.3% of 5v5 shots. If they did the exact same thing with Ferraro instead, that would result in an additional 1.3 goals-for and 1.4 fewer goals-against. 2.7 goals is clearly an impossible real total, and the 3% number is entirely arbitrary, but the point here in this silly thought exercise is that if you assume Miller is an elite PK'er, it still doesn't take much even strength improvement to totally offset that. All of this assumes Ferraro is just an okay penalty killer, and given his speed and how much penalty killing Blashill entrusted him with in Grand Rapids, I'm not even sure that assumption is a fair one.

The reality is that the bulk of the game is played at even strength. Miller played 856 minutes at 5v5 and 254 minutes short-handed last season, meaning he only played 22% of his minutes while penalty killing. Miller's penalty killing is nice, but even in the worst case scenario where Detroit couldn't replace that penalty killing, it's easier than you think to more than make up for it with even strength improvements.

Finding a Replacement

All this discussion means absolutely nothing if you don't actually find a cheaper replacement, and the cheapest way to find a replacement is internal youth. It's obvious by now that I'm hoping Landon Ferraro is the guy, but we just don't know yet. He looked extremely promising to me in his stint with the Wings late last season, but he needs to get more actual NHL time, and that's what Detroit's got to figure out this season. Ferraro's counting stats in Grand Rapids have always been a bit deceiving. Last season for example, he put up 42 points in 70 games, which doesn't seem all the impressive until you consider he got very little PP time and plenty of PK time, at which point 42 points is actually pretty solid.

So how do we find out if he can be a viable Miller-except-younger-and-cheaper guy? The simple answer is he must be given a shot. Detroit can't afford to just stick him back in Grand Rapids and give him 3 or 4 odd games as injury replacements - he needs to be given a real shot, even if that means occasionally healthy scratching Miller and playing Ferraro in his place in order to get a true baseline. This isn't even that crazy considering Detroit will play a league-leading 17 back-to-back games - if anyone deserves a break on those nights, it's your 31-going-on-32 year old shot-blocking-and-grinding forward coming off two straight 82 games played seasons. If he's given a real shot, at that point I would be happy trusting Blashill's judgment at the end of the season on if Miller is replaceable or not. If Ferraro doesn't work out, maybe throw Callahan and his ultra-cheap $600k contract a bone and give him a try. Is the Red Wings season really going to be make-or-break on who gets 4th line winger minutes? If the answer ends up being yes, it'll be because there are bigger fish to fry.

If none of that works, absolutely bring Miller back for another year or two. I have no problem with that. However, in a crucial upcoming summer, Detroit owes it to themselves to see if they can save $700k or so in order to spend every bit of cap space in more crucial places in order to make one last run in a 2016-2017 season that will likely be Pavel Datsyuk's final season as a Red Wing.