By Justin Skelnik | Photos by Ross Dettman
The 2011-12 Chicago Wolves roster is a diverse mix of players on National Hockey League contracts with the Vancouver Canucks and players on standard American Hockey League contracts with the Wolves. As of March 12, eight of Chicago’s 26-man roster are signed to Wolves contracts. One such player is forward Tim Miller.
Miller first saw action with the Wolves during training camp before the start of the 2010-11 campaign. Although he didn’t make the team out of camp, Miller remained on the Wolves radar as he was one of the final cuts and sent to the ECHL’s Gwinnett Gladiators. In early January 2011, he was rewarded for his stellar play in Gwinnett and received a call-up to the Wolves. It was then when Miller saw his opportunity to move up the ranks of pro hockey and ran with it.
“My coach in Gwinnett, Jeff Pyle, called (Wolves general manager) Wendell (Young) and told him I was playing well,” Miller said. “I got called up and my first game I was put on a line with Jason Krog and Darren Haydar. Chicago gave me an opportunity to play well and I tried to prove myself in those games. It was a great experience and I got an opportunity to play and I took full advantage of it. They liked what they saw and I was able to stay up for the rest of the year.”
Miller would go on to post 11 goals, 20 points, and a +10 plus/minus rating in 33 games with the Wolves to secure a contract with Chicago for the 2011-12 season. In June, the Wolves organization underwent major changes. Gone were the coaching staff of Don Lever and Ron Wilson and in came Craig MacTavish and Karl Taylor. Chicago also became the AHL affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks, ending a 10-year partnership with the now-defunct Atlanta Thrashers. That meant most of the players Miller played with last year were gone, but he was quickly reassured that this was the best place for him to continue his hockey career.
“When I found out that the switch of organizations was going to happen this summer, I had the comfort of knowing the players on Wolves contracts that were coming back and those were the guys I was probably closest with last year,” Miller said. “Then Coach MacTavish called me this summer to touch base and talked with me about what his expectations were for the season, so that made me feel really good coming into the season. It was a bit different with all new faces, but I got to know everyone pretty fast at training camp.”
MacTavish really didn’t know anything about his players prior to opening his first training camp as the Wolves head coach, but in time he discovered that Tim was one of the guys that would exceed his expectations.
“I think that Tim has come a long way,” MacTavish said. “It is hard really to say he has come a long way from his play here last year because I wasn’t here, but he has come a long way from my evaluation on him early in the year. He is a real good player for us and really been our most consistent performer.”
Miller has excelled in his second season in Chicago. As of March 12, he has shattered his numbers from last season, posting career-highs in goals (16), assists (16) and points (32). All numbers he is happy with, but it is another stat that he takes the most pride in: his plus/minus rating.
“I have always prided myself on being a defensive forward,” Miller said. “It started in juniors with my coach, who was a real defensive-oriented coach. Then in college I took pride in it on the penalty kill. I translated it into the pro game, where you have to be smarter on the ice or you will get scored on. I take pride in the penalty kill and my plus/minus. Those areas are first for me and then hopefully I can add some points and help the team on the scoreboard.”
Miller is among the league leaders and paces Wolves forwards with a +16 rating. With his plus/minus rating being the stat Miller focuses on the most, it is only fitting that his favorite part of a hockey game is when his team is up a goal with less than a minute to play and he is sent out to help close out a victory.
“If we are up a goal and a defensive zone faceoff is upcoming, that is my favorite part of hockey,” Miller said. “I enjoy when the coach knows he can put me out there and that I can do my part and get the job done to make sure to secure that win. It is something that I look forward to all the time.”
MacTavish has no qualms about sending out Miller to shut down the opposition late in a game.
“I know exactly what to expect out of him,” MacTavish said. “He has a lot of gamesmanship and is a player that is very in tune to the situation of the game and plays the game accordingly. He makes big plays at the end of games for us.”
Despite Miller making big plays for the Wolves in the regular season the past two years, he is looking forward to the potential opportunity to show off his game in the postseason. It is in the playoffs when Miller thinks his game shines the most.
Although the Wolves have yet to clinch a spot in the 2012 Calder Cup playoffs, Miller is happy to be a part of a team that has a realistic shot to make them.
“It is exciting to be with a team that feels we can do really well in the playoffs once it comes down to that time,” said Miller. “I have been playing three years out of college and haven’t played a playoff game yet. I really think I am the type of player that really thrives in a playoff atmosphere. I am looking forward to getting to that time.”
With the on-ice success Miller has gained this season, he may be in line for a NHL contract once he becomes a free agent in the offseason. The Wolves have developed a few players over the years where they started on a Wolves contract and worked themselves to an NHL deal and even time in “The Show.” Forwards Andre Deveaux and Ryan Garbutt are recent examples of players who started one year on an AHL contract and the next season they inked NHL deals. But Miller doesn’t let the potential off-ice distractions faze him.
“First and foremost I am here to help the team have success in any way possible,” Miller said. “But at the same time I want to succeed as an individual and get to that next level. When I see Mike Duco and Bill Sweatt going up to the NHL and doing well, it is good to see, but it makes me think, ‘Hey, maybe I can be doing that too.’
“At the same time I know that all I control is the way I play here and whatever happens, happens. If I can play well enough to get that contract to get to the next level, I know I’ll have earned it.”