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West Coast kid here to stay

1/24/2014 - Boston Bruins

WILMINGTON, Mass. -- A kid from California has become the newest underdog story in Boston.

In a city known for embracing those types of players, fans are quickly falling in love with Boston Bruins rookie defenseman Kevan Miller.

On Wednesday, the Bruins announced a two-year, one-way contract extension for the 26-year-old blueliner from Los Angeles. Miller, a product of the University of Vermont, went undrafted before the Bruins signed him as a free agent on Oct. 21, 2011.

Until making his NHL debut with the Bruins this season, Miller has spent his entire pro career with the Providence Bruins of the AHL. He has been called up three times this season, but now he's here to stay.

"It's obviously a good feeling," Miller said. "You never want to get too comfortable and you always want to be on your toes, but it's a good confidence booster."

Other than his family and close friends, there's one person in the hockey world who knew Miller had this type of potential since a young age.

Larry Bruyere, one of Miller's first coaches for the West Valley Wolves, has been a close friend of the Miller family since Kevan was 6. He was the one who convinced Miller and his family it would be an important step for him to attend the Berkshire School, a prep school in Sheffield, Mass.

"Not everybody is the right fit, but Kevan was one of those kids, because he was a well-rounded athlete and a good student and he just seemed like a good match," Bruyere said. "At first he wasn't interested in leaving his buddies and it was a tough decision."

Miller and his family finally made the decision to send him to prep school during his junior year in high school, and that led to UVM, where he spent four years (2007-2010) and served as the captain for the Catamounts his senior season.

He always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.

"Because of his athleticism he turned heads and became the captain here and the captain there. He was a late bloomer, a late developer," Bruyere said. "Being a late bloomer, it's so much about confidence and determination, and Kevan's been one of those quiet performers. He's not brass. He's never been out there trying to show people up.

"He's always the guy you pick because you know he's going to get the job done, and I think that's a large part why he got called up to the Bruins. They had some injuries and needed somebody to go up and do the job until the guys came back, but he was determined he wasn't going to get sent down, he was going to continue to do the job and it looks like it's working out for him. Given his position as a defenseman, and the fact he has some pretty good size and he can play a physical game, he's going to be one of those guys that can be around for quite a while."

While playing at the pee wee, bantam and midget levels, Miller had a difficult time earning a roster spot on the high-level teams because coaches did not want him playing other sports. At the time, Miller was a talented football player, too, and when hockey coaches suggested to Miller's family that he concentrate only on hockey, that idea didn't fly.

Hockey coaches "would give him an ultimatum and I think his family made the right decision, saying, 'No, we're playing football and we'll get on a hockey team when football season is over. We'll jump on whatever team wants him.' He is a good athlete."

Bruyere, who turns 61 next week, now manages a rink in California and volunteers as a coach-in-chief for the Pacific District for USA Hockey, which has a program called "LTAD," which stands for long-term athlete development.

"Kevan's going to be the poster child for that," Bernier said.

Miller is currently one of only five California-born players active in the NHL, joining Beau Bennett (Pittsburgh Penguins), Matt Nieto (San Jose Sharks), Brooks Orpik (Penguins) and Jason Zucker (Minnesota Wild).

"It's nice to be one of the guys to come out of California, but there have actually been more and more lately, especially in college now, and those guys are coming up through the ranks, so I think you'll see more of that as time goes on," Miller said.

Miller said that growing up in California, he had a poster of an NHL player on his wall, but because that player is still in the league he wouldn't divulge who it was.

"I'm going to hold onto that one," Miller said, "he's still playing. I'm not telling."

During his career at Vermont, Miller's ability and relentless style of play impressed Bruins assistant general manager and former NHL defenseman Don Sweeney.

"From the time I first saw him in college there was something that caught my eye," Sweeney said. "Obviously, he brings that physical presence, competes really hard and I have a good relationship with [Vermont coach] Kevin Sneddon and I think that helped get a real good feel for the type of person and player that Kevan Miller was behind that [collegiate] screen and you want to see what's behind it."

Miller's intangibles stood above his skill set when Sweeney first saw him. Miller has since taken the advice of his college and pro coaches and has become a better all-around player.

If the Bruins and other organizations were so impressed with Miller during his collegiate career, then why did he go undrafted?

"There are always guys who slip through the cracks, in terms of the draft," Sweeney said. "I mean, Torey [Krug] was undrafted. It's not anybody's fault. Some guys, for whatever reason, take a little longer to develop and all of a sudden mature. The fact is when good players, good people, are involved in the game, word travels and you can't hide. The player always states his own case, so to speak. The player gets the lion's share of the credit because he's willing to do the work."

Miller is that type of player.

"He's had some adversity on and off the ice and he's handled it head-on," Sweeney said. "He's a hard-nosed kid and he plays to his strengths. He's a physical guy and he likes confrontational situations. Now, he's continued to work on all the little details, as well."

Miller's pro development process was all about playing in a certain structure, and whether or not he could take what a coach was telling him and execute it properly and successfully at the pro level within the Bruins organization.

Miller has accepted it all.

"He's been receptive to it," Sweeney said. "It all comes back to the player and he's the one who takes the stuff and applies it. It speaks volumes to his character and it shows up in his play."

It was evident during his first training camp with the Bruins that Miller had the potential to compete for a job in the NHL. He finally earned that opportunity this season.

"He's playing with a lot of jump, a lot of confidence," Bruins veteran defenseman and captain Zdeno Chara said. "He's always working hard and whatever he's been asked to do he's doing it to the last possible detail, so he's for sure earning his extension."

Due to all the injuries to Boston's back end this season, Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask has seen many different defensive pairings in front of him. Miller's play has earned him a comparison to veteran defenseman Dennis Seidenberg, who suffered a season-ending knee injury last month.

"He's a solid D-man," Rask said of Miller. "He's kind of Seids' type of guy and really takes pride in taking care of his own net, his own end, and I think once he gets even more comfortable he's going to have that offensive threat, too. Now he doesn't have to worry about contracts or anything, so maybe we'll see him going up the ice more. He's been real solid defensively and a good add for our defense."

When Miller decided he would attend prep school in order to focus on a possible professional career in hockey, he was built like a "bean pole," according to Bruyere. Miller realized he needed to become bigger and stronger, and he has developed into a 6-foot-2, 210-pound wrecking machine.

"It's been a part of my game for a while now," Miller said. "I established it a little bit at prep school where I started to fill myself out a little bit, and then in college I really developed that. It's a part of my game and I've got to keep that going."

During training camp, Chara normally holds the team record for pull-ups. This season, however, he had some competition when Miller banged out 31.

"To keep up with Zee, it's a pretty good feeling," Miller said.

Truth be told, it was Chara that had to match Miller.

"I've always known he's a strong and fit guy, and it's nice to have that kind of competition," Chara said. "He always spends that extra time in the gym, trying to get better and stronger."

The big joke around the Bruins' locker room is Miller likes to show off his physique.

"He's an animal," Rask said. "He's probably one of the strongest guys on the team. He likes to wheel around with no shirt on to show off his muscles, but he's really strong and he's got that good skating position, being down low and always ready to battle. He's really strong on those one-on-one battles, too."

It's evident Bruins coach Claude Julien has confidence in Miller's play. During a recent game against the Los Angeles Kings, Miller was on the ice in the waning minutes, while the Bruins held a one-goal advantage. The fact that the Bruins extended Miller is a sign the organization trusts him, too.

"He's earned it, that's pretty obvious. He's come in here and played some pretty solid hockey and he's being rewarded for it. There's no doubt for a player it gives you confidence and that security that you're always looking for, but he's still on a two-way this year, so he's got to be careful," Julien said with smile.

Just because Miller has earned a spot on the Bruins' roster and proven he can compete in the NHL, he's not about to give naysayers a chance to doubt his ability. He's constantly working on improving his game, both on and off the ice, and he's hoping to become more than just another underdog story in Boston.

"It's been a good journey, but it's not done, yet," Miller said.