The Rangers' situation at center to start the season has been, to put it lightly, a mess. The loss of Brad Richards plus Derek Stepan's broken leg have put Alain Vigneault in an awkward position. Martin St. Louis was selfless in volunteering to play center. It's clear, though, that he's far better suited on the wing. The play of Kevin Hayes has been inconsistent. If he's going to be groomed into a center, then it's clear that he's going to need to do so at the AHL level for a bit after playing wing for most of his career at Boston College.
Chris Mueller was called up as a band-aid, and he's been just that. He's been good in the face-off circle and hasn't been a significant detriment in any way. He hasn't done much positive, however, either. Outside of the third period and overtime in the Rangers' comeback win against the Devils, Mueller has been pretty irrelevant in seven games with the Rangers. His 48.1% Corsi - and 44.4% in close situations - is underwhelming when considering the fact that he's been relatively sheltered. He's not being asked to be in the defensive zone too much and he's being matched against the worst players on opposing teams.
With Derek Stepan's imminent return, the Rangers' center issues are going to be remedied in a big way. Still, the Rangers will still only have three centers - Stepan, Brassard, and Dominic Moore - locked into place. The fourth line has been a liability, and while that's far from being solely Chris Mueller's fault, he certainly isn't a solution, either. Both Evan and Joe have highlighted how poor the fourth line has been and how it impacts the rest of the team. Here's also a great piece fromPatrick Kearns at The Washington Post breaking down the failures of this year's fourth line. Thus, Vigneault and the Rangers need to find a more permanent solution and bring in a player who can fill the spot of fourth line center himself or who can bump Dominic Moore down to the fourth line.
J.T. Miller should get first crack at it. I'm a huge fan of Alain Vigneault, and it's hard to argue with his success; two Stanley Cup Finals appearances including one just this past season in his first year with the Rangers. However, his one achilles' heel, at least in my view, is his reluctance to let prospects work through their mistakes at the NHL level. We've seen consistently, whether it's Duclair, Hayes, Miller, Fast, or McIlrath, that a bad shift, bad period, or bad game can mean sitting in the press box or being demoted. Miller was the victim of this a handful of times last season. To a large extent, it was justified. There were questions surrounding Miller's attitude, and at only 20 years old there was still much for him to learn at the AHL level.
That is no longer the case. Miller is now 21, and since being demoted to Hartford at the start of the season he has been toying with AHL competition. He has three goals and five assists in nine games, and those numbers could easily be higher. Defensively, he's no longer making big mistakes. Physically, he doesn't shy away from anything and is happy to engage in board battles. In general, Miller looks bored, and I don't mean that to imply he's being complacent. Quite the opposite, actually, as he is involved one way or another in every shift. But it's easy to tell that this isn't a challenge for Miller.
Just look at this. He takes the puck from behind his own net and waltzes into the offensive zone, more or less untouched. The player he crosses over in the neutral zone is Scott Laughton, who was a first-round pick in 2012. Miller makes a rush like this once or twice every game, it seems. He has very little left to prove at the AHL level. Being there is no longer about development but instead serves largely as a purgatory for Miller.
Does this mean that Miller is ready to succeed at the NHL level? Not necessarily. There is only one way to find out, though. There will never be a time in playing at the AHL level, or any non-NHL level for that matter, where anyone can definitively say that a player is "ready" for the NHL. Don't take my word for it. The Rangers' Director of Player Personnel and Head Scout, Gordie Clark, said just this past offseason that you won't know if a player is NHL-ready until he's actually put on NHL ice. Since last January, Miller has been given three NHL stints of no longer than five games, including four games during last year's playoffs. Maybe that was justified during those time periods.
It can not be justified any longer, though. Miller has been dominant in the AHL to the point that it's rudimentary for him. The Rangers have a hole to fill at the center position. It's November, meaning that the games aren't of dire consequence like they might be in, say, April. Given that the alternative is a negligible impact from Chris Mueller, it's time to give Miller a legitimate chance to stick at the NHL level.
Vigneault needs to accept that Miller is going to make some mistakes, and that making mistakes at the NHL level is the only way he is going to learn to become an NHL player. For all of John Tortorella's faults, one thing he did do right most of the time was player development. After his debut hat-trick, Derek Stepan had two points - both assists - in his next 13 NHL games. Instead of sending him down and letting Hartford deal with it, Tortorella kept plugging him in there and forced him to adapt. Eventually, Stepan learned, and both he and the Rangers are better for it. At this point it's the only way Miller will learn as well.
The same was true of Brandon Dubinsky, Chris Kreider, Ryan McDonagh, and Marc Staal. There are very few players who step into the NHL and fire on all cylinders right away. If after some time it's obvious that Miller isn't working out, then you go another route. But he needs to be given the chance to prove himself on a bigger scale than four- and five-game stints. If you need to start him on the fourth line then so be it. It's still a chance for him to prove himself and he is more than capable of playing a checking role. A month or two of growing pains in the winter will be well worth it if it means he's a contributing member by the spring and in future seasons. The upside of Miller certainly outweighs the certainty of Mueller as a complete non-factor. At some point, Vigneault has to simply take the training wheels off of Miller's bike and keep pushing him down the hill until he starts standing upright by himself.
Even if he falls over and gets a few scrapes along the way.