After the New York Rangers were shut out twice in the final three games of their Eastern Conference Finals loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the popular narrative matched that of previous seasons: Great goaltending, good defense, but not enough offense.
What was forgotten, though, is that the Rangers were third in the NHL in goals per game during the regular season. Their dry spell in the playoffs was not helped by Mats Zuccarello’s absence after the first round. However, Zuccarello’s injury did help pave the way for young forward J.T. Miller to step up and help provide some of the offense the club was able to muster.
Between his solid postseason performance and his cementing of a regular spot in the Rangers’ lineup during the regular season, Miller — a pending restricted free agent — appears poised to become a major contributor next season and beyond.
Finally a Regular
The road to being a mainstay on the Rangers’ roster was not an easy one for the now 22-year-old Miller. The 15th overall pick in the 2011 NHL entry draft, Miller made his league debut in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, appearing in 26 games. The following season, when Alain Vigneault took over as head coach, Miller played in 30 games, tallying three goals and three assists. He struggled with consistency and also on the defensive side of the game. As such, he was frequently shuffled between the Rangers and their AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolfpack. He also often found himself in Vigneault’s doghouse.
“He just hasn’t earned the right to be at this level on a regular basis,” Vigneault said last year, late in the regular season. “He needs to show more commitment on the ice and off. Until he does that, he hasn’t earned the right.”
The normally reserved and player-friendly Vigneault did not hold back in further criticism of Miller at the time.
“J.T. has to figure it out and hopefully he will,” Vigneault continued. “When he does, we’re going to have a good player. If he doesn’t, he will be a good minor league player.”
Perhaps Vigneault’s criticism was calculated to give Miller the motivation he needed to improve his game. Fortunately for the Rangers, he did just that, and began to perform as that good player Vigneault and the rest of the organization envisioned when they made him their first-round selection in 2011.
Miller was not a consistent presence in the Rangers’ lineup in the early part of this past season, but finally began to cement his spot in December. Not coincidentally, that is the time the Rangers caught fire after a middling start to the season, going on a tear that would lead to their first Presidents’ Trophy since 1994.
Miller finished the regular season with 10 goals and 13 assists in 58 games. More importantly, he earned Vigneault’s trust — so much so, that when Zuccarello went down at the end of the first round of the playoffs, it was eventually Miller who took his spot on the top line with Derick Brassard and Rick Nash. Miller finished the playoffs with a goal and seven assists in 19 games.
His improvement over the course of this past season had Vigneault singing a different tune.
“…just a young player going through the process and understanding what it means to be a pro and improving his knowledge of the game,” Vigneault said about Miller early in the playoffs. “His understanding of what his commitment needs to be; no one ever doubted the skill level and the upside that was there, just a matter of being patient and him putting in the time and that is what he has done.”
Next Season and Beyond
Miller is now ready for a full season in the NHL, and has the skill-set to become at least a 20-goal, 50-point player in the near future, if not next season. The Rangers will need him to provide some more offense as they will probably not be bringing back aging and declining forward Martin St. Louis.
As mentioned, Miller is a pending RFA, so the cap-constrained Rangers will need to re-sign him. St. Louis’s contract coming off the books will help, but center Derek Stepan is also a restricted free agent and is owed a big payday. Carl Hagelin and Jesper Fast are also RFAs, so the Rangers will need to do some fancy maneuvering to bring Miller and others back into the fold next season. That makes potential trades of Cam Talbot and Kevin Klein even more prudent.
New York will also have to be wary of other clubs, such as the Pittsburgh Penguins, signing Miller — who grew up in Pittsburgh — to an offer sheet. As such, they should act quickly to make the moves necessary to bring Miller back, and at a rate that fits well into their salary cap structure — not one dictated by another team that they would have to match.
Nevertheless, it seems hard to imagine that the Rangers would let a promising young offensive force like Miller leave for nothing. Ironically, the thought of the Rangers trading Miller seemed logical a mere year ago, but given how he has improved his game and earned the trust of the coaching staff and his teammates, holding onto him is unquestionably the wisest move now.