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2014 NHL Free Agency: Should The Rangers Gamble On J.T. Miller?

Is this the year to gamble on the young center?

Francois Laplante/FreestylePhoto

On Saturday Larry Brooks speculated the New York Rangers were not going to try and use the money they saved from the Brad Richards buyout to replace him via trade or the open market, but instead were going to use the money to try and keep as much of this team together as possible.

From the article:

This is not a matter of philosophy but rather one of arithmetic. Much of that $6.67 million, in fact, will be eaten in one big bite by the Free-Agent Line of Derick Brassard, Mats Zuccarello and Benoit Pouliot, who stand to go from its 2013-14 combined $5.65 million cap hit to, say, between $11.5 million and $12 million next season ...

It will create an opportunity for Brassard to step up into an unambiguously designated top-six role that will correspondingly create tougher matchups for his unit, and create a third-line opening in the middle the Rangers are fairly desperate for J.T. Miller to be able to fill.

Brooks speculated about the potential salaries for Brassard, Pouliot and Zuccarello in the article. I don't want to get into that because it will be an entirely different story -- although let me say I do think he's way too generous with Brassard and Pouliot -- but the last point is the talking point of this article.

Is this the year to gamble on J.T. Miller?

The Rangers just came three goals away from winning the Stanley Cup in five games (I'm saying it this way because the 4-1 series score really doesn't reflect how close this series was), so it does make sense for the brass to have a desire to bring back as much of the core as possible. Like it or not, Anton Stralman is looking for a more secure contract, and by all indications the Rangers are trying to give it to him. Zuccarello is going to get a massive raise. Chris Kreider and John Moore need to be retained. Dominic Moore will probably be bought back and the Rangers would need to make it really worth Brian Boyle's while for him to return in a sustained fourth line role. It's not going to be a cheap and easy summer for the Rangers.

The strategy Brooks outlined -- moving Miller to the third line to "replace" Richards -- makes sense in a lot of ways. Financially it's exactly what the Rangers need. It gives the team a cheap replacement for the third line while allowing the brass to make sure they keep the core in tact.

It also makes some sense in terms of Miller as a player. The Rangers are still high on him, as they should be, despite Alain Vigneault's cryptic comments about him "figuring it out" earlier in the year. He had two points in four playoff games, six points in 30 NHL games and 43 points in 41 games for an awful Hartford Wolfpack team in the AHL.

Yes, Miller has work to do, but I really do think he can figure things out on the offensive side. I also really like his physicality and willingness to go to the tough areas of the ice. The problem with Miller -- much like Kreider when he was first coming up -- is his defensive game. It leaves oh so much to be desired, and if the Rangers are going to take a gamble on him he must improve this aspect of his game as soon as possible. The Rangers "third line" will probably have two of Martin St. Louis, Kreider or Carl Hagelin on it (assuming Pouliot stays and that line remains together). That's a big responsibility for Miller. Is he ready for it?

More importantly, is this the year to do something like this? Should the Rangers allow every player that's reportedly available via trade or is available via free agency go past them? Wouldn't Mikhail Grabovski be a fine upgrade for Richards (I'm going to have a story on this sometime this week) at a smaller price tag than, say, Paul Stastny or Jason Spezza? Should the Rangers pass up on Stastny and Grabovski on the open market?

The Rangers are in win now mode, so this decision will go a long way to factoring into whether or not the Rangers get back to the Stanley Cup Final the next few years. I do think Miller is a player worth being gambled on, but there is a time and a place to push all your chips into the center of the table and flip your cards for everyone to see.

Glen Sather holds those cards. And if he does go down this road, you better hope two aces show up when he flips them. Because if he doesn't have a good hand, it's a mistake the Rangers might regret for a long time.