With all the open spots left by the offseason departures of Brad Richards, Benoit Pouliot, and Brian Boyle, all eyes focused on J.T. Miller to see if he could finally break out and supplant himself as a top-9 forward on the Rangers this season.
Things started out optimistic as Miller came into camp in terrific shape and even arrived a few days earlier to get a head start on the new season. After last year’s up-and-down play, which included Head Coach Alain Vigneault remarking that Miller “Needs to show more commitment on the ice and off,” it seemed as though he had matured and was ready to take on the challenge.
In the preseason, Miller’s play continued to be promising. Although the Rangers coaching staff shifted him to center frequently, he showcased his talents by racking up 4 points in 5 games and even gained the moderate respect from Coach Vigneault who noted that Miller “has tremendous upside and his overall attitude…this year has been so professional.”
With a productive preseason under his belt and a spot on the opening night roster, it finally seemed as though the Ohio native would take that next step towards being a consistent, everyday NHL player.
But not all stories unfold that seamlessly. After a 3-game stretch, the last of which was an ugly 6-3 home-opening loss to the Maple Leafs in which Miller went -3, he was out of the lineup and eventually sent down to the AHL’s Hartford Wolfpack.
It’s tough to pinpoint certain plays or sequences where Miller could have played better but it can be assumed his play without the puck was a determining factor in his demotion. While Miller finds himself on the outside looking in, rookies such as Kevin Hayes and Anthony Duclair as well as veterans Ryan Malone and Chris Mueller have stepped up to fill the void and have taken over his spot for the moment.
While Anthony Duclair has basically played himself into a top-9 role, it must be tough for Miller to see that Hayes and Mueller, both centers, have been slotted above him on the depth chart. Both were signed by the Rangers this offseason and each has shown that they are capable of making an impact thus far. However, with Derek Stepan due to start practicing within the week, things can certainly change quickly at the Center position.
With all this in mind, this question becomes more realistic: Is J.T. Miller’s future with the Rangers in jeopardy?
At this point, the answer seems to be no. While he hasn’t satisfied all of his critics in the NHL thus far, the former 1st round draft pick for the Rangers in 2011 has yet to play more than 30 games in either of his two NHL seasons. In his time in the AHL, he was nearly a point-per-game player, leading most to believe he is not far from doing the same in the big leagues. His biggest problem seems to be consistency and the ability to play at his highest level every night but while he finds that aspect of his game, it shouldn’t be considered a disappointment to let him continue to grow in the AHL. As we saw with Chris Kreider, a demotion to the AHL can have a positive effect on a player’s development. Just last season Kreider was sent down to the AHL before the start of the regular season to get more ice time in a variety of situations. The move helped solidify his game and within weeks, Kreider was called up and hasn’t looked back.
On the other hand, Miller does represent a valuable trading piece that plenty of teams would love to have. A talented, young forward capable of playing wing or Center, it wouldn’t take long to find a team that wants him. The tricky part would be getting anything in return that’s of equal value. As Larry Brooks of the NY Post pointed out, there should be no reason to trade away such a valuable young prospect for a “band-aid” fifth or sixth defenseman. If anything, the Rangers should only use Miller as a trade piece if it comes in the form of bringing in a big-time center.
Looking at the bigger picture though, it’s tough to see the Rangers simply giving up on a 21-year old who is on the cusp of sticking with the team for good. He’s too talented a player to part with and it would be foolish to trade him away only to watch him flourish on another team that let him develop and reach his full potential.
Although he’s currently in the minors, Miller will continue to get opportunities on the Rangers this year. Coach Vigneault has been open in saying that he specifically sent Miller down this time in order to play center and that he expects the his future with the Rangers to be at the center position. If that’s the case, it bodes well for both J.T. Miller and the New York Rangers.
Injuries will arise and the New York Rangers are by no means a team that has its line combinations set in stone on a game by game basis. Early season chemistry issues are still evident and it will take time before the team hits their stride. This could provide Miller with his fighting chance to make his mark at some point during this season. Realistically, it’s only a matter of time until we see him again. It’s just a matter of what type of player he wants to be.
Josh recently joined The Hockey Writers as a contributing writer for the New York Islanders. Hailing from Long Island, Josh has written previously for CBS New York/WFAN.