Miller wants to be on the money for playoffs

April 17, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH -- It was an early morning in late February, and Kelly Miller was walking toward the training room when Todd Krygier spied him down the hallway at the Washington Capitals training facility.

"Hey, Kelly, I was just asked if you earn your money," said Krygier, smiling. "I said you did."

Miller cringed ever so slightly. At that point in the season, "the money", the $1.8 million he is earning this season after re-signing with the Capitals as a free agent, was hanging around his neck like the proverbial albatross.

Nearly every fan walking into an arena to see the Caps play knew how much Miller was making. And when the Capitals struggled and Miller had trouble scoring, it wasn't hard to hear the team's fans grumble as they filed out after a loss.

Big bucks in the NHL are supposed to translate into big goals.

But for two-thirds of this season, that wasn't the story with Miller. But then, he's never been one to be obsessed with stats.

"My happiness in this game comes from the team winning," he said. "I've never put up fantastic numbers. That's not what I've done. I can't expect myself, all of a sudden, now that they're paying me more, to do something that I've never done. The fans are interested in a winning team and there is a lot more to winning than scoring."

Even now, as his fortunes have changed, stats still don't tell much about what Washington's well-respected defensive forward does.

They don't tell anything about his work ethic, though they do say something about his consistency -- he has missed only five games in seven seasons with Washington, while averaging 40 points.

This season, despite a sub-par start, Miller finished the regular season in a rush to come within one point of his average, with 14 goals and 25 assists. His four game-winning goals have tied him with Mike Ridley and Michal Pivonka for second-most on the team behind Randy Burridge's five.

Miller ended the regular season with a six-game, point-scoring streak (five goals and two assists), including the goal that many consider the biggest one of the Capitals season.

That came on April Fools Day against New Jersey with 46 seconds left. It gave the Caps a 2-1 victory and helped position them to make the Stanley Cup playoffs, which begin tonight against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Civic Arena.

"I don't know why things have changed," said Miller. "Our whole team played bad for more than 40 games. Then [coach Jim] Schoenfeld came and it created a new atmosphere. It created some excitement and a challenge and it felt like a new start for me. I've been working hard all year, but right now, I'm in a groove. I've found a bit of rhythm and things are going my way.

"But the important thing is to do well in the playoffs."

After tonight, the best-of-seven series continues with Game 2 on Tuesday in Pittsburgh and then returns to USAir Arena for Games 3 and 4 on Thursday and Saturday.

"I try to be a good two-way forward," said Miller. "To get 40 to 50 points and not be on the power play, that's pretty good. And given the frustration of this season, as tough as the first part was, to have this many points and to be playing at plus-10 on the plus-minus chart, I'm pretty happy."

For $1.8 million, most teams would want a major goal scorer. In Boston, Adam Oates led the Bruins in points with 112, and makes $1.3 million. Cam Neely, who scored 50 goals in 49 games, makes $1 million. The Vancouver Canucks' pay Pavel Bure (60 goals, 47 assists) $930,000.

Players such as Miller, who muck in the corners, kill penalties and spend most of their time closing down the other team's top forwards, generally make considerably less.

New York Rangers defensive forward Craig MacTavish makes $550,000. The Chicago Blackhawks' Brent Sutter makes $775,000.

But there are always aberrations. The Detroit Red Wings' Sergei Fedorov, second only to Wayne Gretzky in scoring this season, until recently made just $295,000.

And then there's Miller. He took the risk of playing out his option and won big -- for doing a job that some would argue Steve Konowalchuk ($250,000) is growing into.

But even when Miller hasn't been playing that well, the Capitals have needed him.

That need stretches back to before the 1992-93 season, when Washington traded away star Dino Ciccarelli. It intensified last season, when star defenseman Rod Langway moved into an uneasy retirement. Until the Caps traded defenseman Al Iafrate for the 100-point potential of center Joe Juneau last month, management had been criticized by fans because of its unwillingness to spend money -- to either keep its good players or to get a franchise player from elsewhere.

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