If you were to write a story about J.T. Miller's season this year it would include a lot of ups and downs. Seriously, you'd be writing a lot about him being called up and then sent back down.
When the season started there was one big question hovering over the team. It had to do with a rookie forward. That player was Chris Kreider. Would Alain Vigneault's new system (and new attitude) help the Rangers' potentially star-powered prospect to finally reach his full potential?
Miller, for the most part, was an afterthought. That changed pretty quickly, though, when Miller made the team out of camp and Kreider didn't. The news sent its traditional ripples through the Rangers' fanbase, with the biggest worriers just assuming Kreider was a bust and would never play another game in the NHL. Miller, on the other hand, was hailed for being far more polished and NHL ready, and was poised to take the next step.
Funny how things change. Just a few weeks into the season, Vigneault realized his team needed more offense and he called up Kreider. Kreider exploded back onto the scene and never looked back. To the point of his injury, he's notched 17 goals and 20 assists for 37 points in 66 games, and his injury is a pretty big loss to the team.
Shortly after Kreider came up, Miller went back down to the AHL. And he dominated. And continued to dominate. So far, Miller has 38 points in 35 AHL games. Here and there Miller has been called up, only to be sent right back down to the AHL the next day. Sometimes he played an NHL game in between, and sometimes he didn't.
It's not necessarily that Miller isn't deserving. I do think Miller is very much like a Ryan Callahan type player, except with more offensive upside. I do think he has a good future in this league, and I do think he's going to be an important player for the Rangers for years to come. However, Miller really didn't have much of a chance to crack this team once they got rolling.
The fourth line is settled, and Miller wouldn't be better served there than playing full minutes in the AHL anyway. The third line -- where Miller would ideally be suited -- was locked with Derick Brassard, Benoit Pouliot and a rotating forward of Mats Zuccarello or Carl Hagelin. Seriously, who are you taking out of the lineup (when everyone is healthy) to insert Miller? Especially if you're not willing to give him fourth-line minutes with a fourth-line role.
So maybe Miller's inability to crack the lineup really doesn't have anything to do with him, but has much more to do with the way the Rangers are constructed. Again, that's not a bad thing. I made it a point to talk about this team's depth in the morning notes after the Rangers' victory over the Flyers on Wednesday. It's a big strength they have right now. If it keeps a future player in the AHL for another year, so be it.
But now that Kreider is injured, Miller has a change to prove he belongs. He finally has the opportunity to truly force Vigneault's hand. His performance in Philadelphia was neither good nor bad. It was solid. He took a bad penalty (that was really a dive, but whatever) and made a few things happen. And while that's not a bad thing -- especially for his first game back -- it's not enough to really force his way into the lineup once Kreider returns.
The chance is finally here for Miller. Now he just needs to take advantage of it.