MADISON, Wisconsin -- K'Andre Miller, a sophomore defenseman for the Wisconsin Badgers' men's hockey team, has a star quality about him that is unmistakable, whether he's on the ice or off.
The New York Rangers noticed it, too. They took Miller with their second of three first-round picks in the 2018 NHL draft, at No. 22 overall, making him a key piece in the early stages of the team's accelerated rebuild.
Selected out of the U.S. National Team Development Program (NTDP), Miller was viewed as a project, albeit one with huge upside. He had only been playing defense full time for the previous two seasons when he was drafted. A converted forward, he has a big 6-foot-4, 211-pound frame, raw athleticism and tremendous skating ability. Miller was still learning the position when the Rangers called his name, but he seemed to be an especially quick study.
As a freshman at Wisconsin in 2018-19, Miller had a spectacular season before injury cost him the last few weeks of the campaign. The Hopkins, Minnesota, native had 22 points in 26 games and made the Big Ten's all-rookie team. Miller entered this season as one of two unanimous selections to the preseason All-Big Ten first team.
"He's grown a lot as a player since a lot of us saw him before drafting him," says Chris Drury, the Rangers' assistant general manager. "Obviously, [Rangers director of player personnel] Gordie [Clark] and our staff of amateur scouts had a good read on him. Physically, he's loaded with a ton of tools, size, skating. There's a lot of things to like. Defensively, the more and more he plays at high levels, like at the World Juniors and in college, he's getting better and better."
Miller, 19, is one of the most interesting prospects outside of the NHL today because of his current development trend and how he was shaped into the person he is today.
The star quality was always evident. For a brief period, Miller was a child model appearing in Target ads and was even cast in a Honda commercial that featured former Rangers Mike Richter and Pat LaFontaine. He was a multisport athlete in high school, showcasing a particular talent in football in addition to hockey, and was mentored by former major league pitcher Rick Helling, who was his football coach and became a close family friend. But if there's any one thing he really, really wants you to know about him, it's that whatever he does next, wherever he goes in his career, it's because of his mother.
Miller is the exceedingly proud son of Amy Sokoloski, who raised him as a single mom in Minnesota. She worked hard to allow her only child to achieve his dreams, and her example has stuck with Miller and drives him.
"My mom is one of the biggest inspirations in my life, probably will ever be in my life," Miller says. "We didn't come from the richest family. I didn't have brothers or sisters -- it was just me and my mom."
Now a sophomore at Wisconsin and a blue-chip prospect for an Original Six franchise, his biggest dream is finally within reach. And he credits the lessons she taught him, the people she put in his life and how she let him go at 16 years old to put himself in a better position to pursue his dreams.
"When I left for the national program, it got hard knowing that she was all by herself at home, trying to watch me succeed," Miller recalls. "I knew deep down she was hurting as much as I was being away from my best friend."
Hockey forces you to grow up sooner in a lot of cases. Many players leave home at younger ages for junior hockey in hopes of achieving NHL dreams or a college scholarship. It was the path Miller felt was the best way to achieve his ultimate goal.
"Her motivation to even get me to this point pushed me every day to hopefully give back to her for all the things she sacrificed."
One time, Miller was preparing to head to Winnipeg, Manitoba, for a tournament Miller described as a "pretty big deal" in his hockey-playing life at that point. But three days before it began, he broke both of his hockey sticks, which have become pretty expensive these days. Amy asked her manager at work for extra hours so she could replace the broken sticks. Amy always found a way.
"If I didn't have that, her willingness to do whatever she could to see me succeed, I wouldn't have been able to do this," he says.
Moments like those have added up over the years: The mom who made it all possible and the kid who used to draw nets on the wall in his building's parking garage where he'd shoot tennis ball after tennis ball.
At the time he was shooting those tennis balls, he still thought he was a forward. During his sophomore year of high school, he made the switch to defense, but it wasn't until his first year at the NTDP that Miller played an entire season as a blueliner. And his ability to adapt and make rapid strides at a difficult position only enhanced how he was viewed as a prospect.
Now he's playing the position at a college known for training and churning out elite-level defensemen. With alumni that include Hockey Hall of Famer Chris Chelios and current NHL standouts Ryan Suter and Ryan McDonagh, Wisconsin is essentially "Defenseman U." And it's why the decision to return for his sophomore season was pretty easy for Miller, despite some speculation that he would leave for a pro contract.
"I didn't feel like I was really ready or prepared for that next step yet," Miller says. "Obviously, with these coaches [at Wisconsin], you're not going to find that anywhere else. So I knew I wanted to develop a little bit more on and off the ice with these guys."
The Rangers, who had several of their most important prospects sign contracts last summer, have no problem waiting a little longer for one of their potential future stars on defense. New York traded for Jacob Trouba and Adam Fox over the summer to improve its blue line, and beyond Miller, it also has the likes of Nils Lundkvist and Matthew Robertson in the pipeline at the position.
"We are very happy where he's at on his development curve," Drury says of Miller's choice to remain in school. "We know he's in great hands, learning a lot every single day, not only on ice, but off ice."
Miller's time at Wisconsin has shown him what it's like to be part of a rebuild, too. Former NHL standout and current UW coach Tony Granato has been trying to reshape a program that has fallen away from the college hockey elite, having not appeared in the NCAA tournament since 2014. Miller is a central part of that rebuild, just as he could be in the ongoing "trust the process" situation happening in Manhattan with the Rangers. Having just added one of the nation's best recruiting classes, the Badgers look to Miller as a leader even though he's only a sophomore.
That part has required a bit of a learning curve, and there have been a few bumps along the way. Just prior to the season, Miller was suspended for an unspecified violation of team rules, causing him to miss an intrasquad game.
"It's another example of college life and trying to learn, manage time, manage expectations, and we think that will be good for him for when he eventually turns pro," Drury says of the prospect's early-season discipline.
Miller was reinstated for the beginning of the regular season and returned to action the following weekend for a meeting with Boston College. He'd score his first two goals of the season the following day against Merrimack.
The Badgers are now No. 6 in both major men's college hockey polls. They jumped 11 spots in one poll and joined the ranking altogether in the other after sweeping the two-time defending national champion Minnesota Duluth in Madison over the Oct. 18-19 weekend. They may have been Granato's biggest wins since he returned to the program in 2016 after a long NHL coaching career. And during that series, some of the improvement Miller has shown as more of a true defender was on display, as the Badgers collectively held the Bulldogs to just three goals over the two games.
Miller has put himself in a position to succeed on the ice. He's a critical piece of one of college hockey's most talented teams. He's a fixture on many of USA Hockey's international tournament teams. And he is a centerpiece in the Rangers' rebuild and attempt to reenter contender status over the next few years. But interestingly, none of that came up when asked what a successful career would look like for him.
"The biggest thing, I think, is having an impact on other people," Miller says of his career ahead. "It's always kind of been my goal. I just realize that not everyone has it as good as some of us. I didn't have it as good as a lot of people growing up ... I'm looking forward to hopefully impacting a lot of young kids that don't think they can make it at this level or get out of whatever they're going through. It's always been a big part of me."
Miller is already taking steps in that direction while in school. The communication arts major had a conversation with his academic advisor about it and is taking a few classes this semester that he hopes will help him learn some more of the ins and outs of doing charitable work.
As the Rangers look to continue building up their franchise, they know they need special types of players. And Miller is showing he can be that type of player for the Blueshirts.
"Every team does their homework -- we're no different," Drury says. "A first-round pick like K'Andre -- you don't just want good players but good people. We felt that he fit that mold. We're excited about the person, the player, the whole package."
The Rangers may not have to wait much longer to see what Miller can bring to the table at the next level. Though Drury says the team will continue evaluating him over the course of this season before making a decision about when to sign him, Miller's upward trend developmentally at least puts him in the conversation to officially join the organization as early as this spring. He would be available to sign and join the Rangers' youthful defense corps after his college season concludes.
But with Miller and the rest of the talent on the Badgers' roster, that might not be until after the NCAA Frozen Four in April.