The 1998-99 Pittsburgh Penguins featured names like Jaromir Jagr, Alexei Kovalev, Martin Straka, Tom Barrasso, Robert Lang, Aleksey Morozov, Darius Kasparitis and Matthew Barnaby. To say this was a collection of fondly remembered Penguins would be an understatement.
History hasn't been so kind, however, to one player from that team, a career minor leaguer plucked from the scrap heap to play alongside the league's MVP. He was widely derided for his shortcomings and considered to be one of the primary reasons for the team's quick exit from the playoffs.
His name was Kip Miller.
THE START OF A TREND
The undersized but skilled Kip Charles Miller was drafted out of Michigan State University by the Quebec Nordiques in the fourth round of the 1987 NHL Entry Draft.
An offensive juggernaut at Michigan State, Miller won the 1990 Hobey Baker Memorial Award for the top player in collegiate hockey and now appears near the top of almost every career stat list at the university.
Miller looked like he was on the fast track to a strong NHL career, finishing second in scoring on his AHL team during his rookie campaign despite playing 13 games in the NHL in the same season. The next year Miller's 13 games with Quebec became 36, in which his responsibilities increased and his weaknesses were quickly exposed.
Seeing what Miller could and couldn't provide, the Nordiques quickly shipped him to Minnesota in the middle of his sophomore campaign for fellow future journeyman Steve Maltais. This was the start of a trend for Miller, who played for 13 different teams in three leagues before landing in Pittsburgh via the waiver draft in 1998.
It was in Pittsburgh that Miller would get his first opportunity to shine in the NHL.
THE 1998-99 PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
Then-head coach Kevin Constantine, operating on a tightening Penguins budget, liked Miller's pedigree and considered him a viable option to play alongside Jaromir Jagr on the top line.
Flanking elite players with mediocre support is a tradition in Pittsburgh. In today's NHL, large-salaried players such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are often required to play with a relatively weak supporting cast due to the NHL's salary cap. In the mid-to-late 90s, while many teams spent excessive amounts on their rosters, the financially fragile Penguins were forced to have stars like Jagr and Mario Lemieux play under similar circumstances to what Crosby and Malkin now do.
Jagr, though, relished the challenge of carrying a line, and he found himself playing alongside the unknown Miller (and the reliable Jan Hrdina).
In that same season, Constntine did manage to cobble together one of the more memorable lines in Penguins' history, an inexpensive but talented combination put together through trade, free agency and waiver acquisitions. The trio were affectionately referred to as the KLS Line and featured emerging star Alexei Kovalev, a resurgent Martin Straka and the unheralded Robert Lang.
Now, these lines weren't set in stone quite yet and the KLS line, specifically, didn't become a fixture for the Penguins until late in the season.
In fact, German Titov and Aleksey Morozov found time on the top three lines at various points in the season, and Titov, surprisingly, finished third on the team in scoring. But those watching knew that the KLS line would eventually reap dividends.
The KLS line was much more balanced than Jagr's. But over the course of the season, Jagr's line combined for 76 goals and 135 assists for 211 points (120 from Jagr) in 240 games. The second line put up 76 goals and 97 assists for 173 points in 215 games. The young KLS line was impressive, but the incredible numbers were a testament to Jagr's ability during an MVP season.
As for Kip Miller? For whatever reason, Jagr enjoyed playing with him and Miller clearly enjoyed playing with Jagr. Miller eclipsed his career-best totals in the NHL as he played in in 76 contests and put up 42 points playing wide, throwing pucks to Jagr, and making nifty little plays like this:
The above clip actually took place during the 1999-2000 season, but it easily could have been from Miller's first with the Pens.
Notice how the entire left side of the ice was devoid of any Islanders. With Jagr cutting across right, the entire defense shifted, not worrying much about Miller or Hrdina and focusing on the Penguins' captain. When Miller cut across the grain, the defense was at a loss. Miller then showed that, with time and space, he could make a defense pay.
Unfortunately, Miller was soft and was a defensive liability, and he failed to consistently take advantage of the scoring opportunities that came along with sharing a line with Jagr. In fact, by the end of the season, Miller averaged over 20 minutes of ice time a game on that top unit and saw considerable time on the power play..
The Penguins were ousted in the second round of the playoffs that year due to a mediocre, punchless defense and inconsistent goaltending. But public enemy number one? Kip Miller, who couldn't keep up with Jagr.
There was some legitimate fault there but, to be fair, who could keep up with Jagr? And, more precisely, who really expected Miller to?
When Constantine was fired and replaced with Herb Brooks after a poor start to the following campaign, Miller's days were numbered. Not long after taking over, Brooks shipped Miller to Anaheim for a ninth-round pick. Miller returned to Pittsburgh the following season but was unspectacular in 33 games, rarely playing with Jagr. He was, once again, shown the door in the offseason.
Miller found his way back to the New York Islanders during the following season, producing positive numbers in limited appearances. But that was only a bump in the road before found his way to back to Jagr's line, this time with the Washington Capitals,
The result? Miller had his most productive season in the NHL, putting up 50 points in 72 games in 2002-03. The following year he posted 31 points in 66 games.
Our hero played his final three seasons in the AHL, putting up impressive numbers, but never played another shift in the big leagues before retiring in 2007.
DO THE STATS LIE?
239 points in 449 career NHL games over 12 seasons. (.53 points per game)
906 points in 794 career minor league (AHL & IHL) games over 13 seasons. (1.14 points per game)
And, more important for our purposes:
123 points in 259 games playing with Jagr (.47 points per game).
116 points in 190 games playing without Jagr (.61 points per game).
So, did Miller's appearances playing alongside Jagr actually diminish his returns?
The short answer is "no." The longer answer ends with "probably not."
Miller was a streaky player during his first season with the Penguins, putting up half of his points in January while managing just one goal in the first 28 games of the season.
In short stints with the Islanders and Mighty Ducks, Miller put up points at impressive clips but never received opportunities to extend those streaks into longer stays with those teams.
In the end, Miller's shortcomings overwhelmed his obvious skills. A team might have been willing to overlook his dry spells if he could have put in a solid shift in the defensive zone or shown some intangibles beyond getting along really well with Jaromir Jagr.
Miller belongs in a class with Randy Robitaille, Alexandre Daigle, Pat Falloon and, more recently, Ruslan Fedotenko: talented players with serious deficiencies and consistency issues that undermine their promising NHL careers. Unfortunately, as long as the Pens depend on these kinds of players, their stars will continue to carry heavy workloads.
Miller was more talented than many players who had longer, more successful NHL careers. But, as in life itself, results don't depend on talent alone.