It’s Miller Time for the Lightning

Sometimes when a player is brought onto a new team midseason their instant success exceeds expectations. This could be because the new team better fits their style or there’s a supporting cast that is able to provide new opportunities. For J.T. Miller, the transition to the Tampa Bay Lightning after the trade deadline has been the perfect match for the player and franchise.

Since being acquired by the Lightning on Feb. 26, Miller has scored five goals and nine points in seven games including his first career hat trick. He has quickly worked his way up, taking over the spot on the top line vacated by Vladislav Namestnikov. While playing with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, he provides a big body that can hound the puck and help set up the two all-world scorers in front of the net.

Miller’s Reaching His Potential with Lightning

It’s shouldn’t be a surprise that Miller is finding success with the Lightning. He has the build and pedigree of a player that could flourish in the right situation. Not only was he a first-round draft pick by the New York Rangers in the 2011 draft, he is working on his third straight 20-goal season and is well on pace to break 50 points for the second straight year.

J.T. Miller New York Rangers
Throughout his career with the New York Rangers, J.T. Miller found some scoring success, posting a career-high 22 goals and 56 points during the 2016-17 season. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Given his scoring potential, it makes sense that Miller has quickly carved out a niche with an offensive-minded team like the Lightning. However, the fact that he’s had near-instant chemistry with Kucherov and Stamkos is surprising. Normally a center, Miller was moved onto Stamkos’ left wing after the team was struggling to produce offense against the Montreal Canadiens on March 11. As head coach Jon Cooper told Roger Mooney of the Tampa Bay Times after the game:

“It wasn’t clicking,” Cooper said of this offense during the first two periods. “We make the move to put ‘Millsy’ up there and I thought instantly it gave them a spark from the first shift of the third and all the way through.”

Miller went on to set up Stamkos and Kucherov for the game-tying goal in the third period when he played the puck hard behind the net, jarring it loose from a Canadiens defender. After this strong play, he continued playing with the two All-Stars and scored his first career hat trick in his next game.

Replacing Namestnikov Is No Small Task

When the Lightning traded Namestnikov to the Rangers, there was concern that his absence would have unexpected consequences. Trading a 20-goal scoring forward who had chemistry and experience with two of the team’s top players could create issues throughout a roster. Namestnikov was also a beloved teammate, with Cooper comparing the trade to ‘losing a son.’

Vladislav Namestnikov, Tampa Bay Lightning
After spending his entire career with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Vladislav Namestnikov was traded to the New York Rangers as part of the massive deadline deal. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, the one thing Namestnikov couldn’t do was play as big a game as Miller. No matter how skilled he was, Namestnikov is a smaller forward at 5’11”, 180 lbs. Miller, on the other hand, is 6’1″ and weighs roughly 220 lbs. The size difference gives Stamkos and Kucherov a different dynamic on the top line. Miller is skilled enough to feed off of the talent of his linemates but he can also provide some needed grit and physical play that was missing from that top line.

Lightning Need Miller’s Continued Success

While having a hot start with a new team is great, the Lightning need Miller to be more than a flash in the pan as they reach the postseason. If they are to be true competitors for the Stanley Cup, they need players like Miller to contribute at both ends of the ice throughout the playoffs. This includes scoring goals, playing the body and winning defensive zone faceoffs (an area where the team has struggled all year long).

Thankfully, Miller should be able to contribute consistently on both offense and defense. He has been given the best chance to succeed on the top line and looks to be relishing the opportunity. Posting his second hattrick of the season with the Bolts is a good start to his career with the franchise. Now, he just needs to show that he can consistently produce by making the right choices. If he can, Miller may work his way into the Lightning’s long-term plans.