J.T. Miller is enjoying the ride.
After averaging a point per game in the OHL last season, the Rangers’ first round pick in the 2011 Draft became an AHL all-star this season, and won a Gold Medal at the 2013 World Junior Championships.
Now, Miller is playing on a consistent basis with the New York Rangers. And the 19-year-old is loving every minute of it.
“It’s everything I ever expected,” an enthusiastic Miller said after the Rangers 4-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday. “I’m just trying to earn my keep here, play my role, and keep it as simple as possible.”
Miller’s style of play has paid dividends for him. The Blueshirts felt strongly enough about the rookie’s play to keep him on Seventh Avenue while sending Chris Kreider down to the AHL for more seasoning.
“He’s been more consistent,” Rangers head coach John Tortorella said of Miller. “He’s made more of a difference in recent games compared to some of the guys we sent down. In the last game (against Winnipeg), I thought he found another level.”
That’s not to say that the transition has been smooth sailing for the 19-year-old, who has two goals and two assists in 11 games with the Rangers. “The defense here (in the NHL) is real tough to play against,” Miller said. “Also, defensively, if you’re in the wrong spot, the other team will embarrass you.”
Although Miller has become a better defensive player, Tortorella would prefer for him to play on the wing instead of center, thus alleviating some of the defensive pressure off of him.
“He doesn’t prefer the middle,” the Rangers bench boss said. “It was hard for him (playing center). He still has a ways to go in learning how to defend as a winger too. And rightfully so, as he’s just a kid.”
Another part of Miller’s game that Tortorella would like to see him develop is playing while fatigued. “He doesn’t know how to play when he’s tired,” Tortorella said after the victory over Tampa Bay. “He has to learn how to play when you’re tired on the ice and still get something done.”
While the 19-year-old realizes that Tortorella is pushing him, he appreciates how the Rangers’ bench boss’ guidance has helped his game. “He’s an intense guy, and he demands a lot out of his players,” Miller said of Tortorella.
“That’s a good thing, obviously. He’s a great coach for that. He knows his stuff and definitely wants the best out of his players.”
Miller can provide offense, as evidenced by his two goals in just his second NHL game. His ability to control the puck in tight areas and make plays is impressive for a player of Miller’s age and experience.
Right now, the Rangers hope that Miller can use those skills to provide offense on the club’s third line.
“Brian (Boyle) and I have been having some great chemistry together,” Miller said. “We’re getting our chances but we haven’t been able to put one in yet. It’s only a matter of time before we get one.”
Despite dealing with the tough learning curve, Miller’s confidence in his game has never wavered. And his head coach has noticed.
“He’s sure of himself, and he has the right type of confidence,” Tortorella said. “He makes some mistakes, but he hasn’t flattened out like some other kids might have.”
The Rangers’ decision in February to put Miller on the fast track to the NHL spoke volumes about how the organization values his potential. Their decision to keep him after five games — and burn a year off his entry-level contract — said just as much.
As is the case for any young player, there will be bumps in the road for Miller. But the Rangers are willing to take the ride.
And rightfully so.