At 22 years old J.T. Miller played in 2 more regular season games in 2014-15 than he did in his first two seasons with the Blueshirts. Two seasons ago Miller was moved all over the Rangers' lineup by Alain Vigneault and it didn't do the young forward any favors in finding his game. He played 41 games with the Wolf Pack in 2013-14, and skated in 18 games with the Rangers' AHL affiliate this past season scoring 15 points. When Miller was up with the Rangers he was sometimes a healthy scratch when he wasn't skating primarily in the bottom six forward group. Miller knew that he needed to step up his game in a big way in the last season of his entry-level contract and to prove his value to the coaches, especially Rangers' bench boss Alain Vigneault who has been very critical of Miller's play.
"There needs to be more commitment from his part on the ice and off the ice and, until there is, he hasn't earned the right to be at this level on a regular basis. That's part of any young player going through the process of being an NHL player. You've got to figure it out and hopefully he will. And when he does, we'll have a good player. If he doesn't figure it out, then he'll be a good minor leaguer." - Alain Vigneault, early April 2014
In Miller's 58 games in 2014-15 he was most frequently on the ice with Kevin Hayes and current Anaheim Duck Carl Hagelin on his opposite wing. However, much like most of the Rangers' bottom six forwards last season, Miller was moved all over the lineup and skated with everyone from Derick Brassard to Tanner Glass. Miller, a natural center, played predominantly on the wing but still finished the season with the fifth highest total faceoffs taken among all Rangers' forwards. The game of musical chairs played with the club's bottom six forwards, Miller's ability to play both wing and center, and Miller's noteworthy inconsistency were the major contributing factors to his spotty attendance in the Rangers' lineup.
"When he skates he's a different player; when he moves his feet, he creates a lot of offense. He's got a great shot. He's a physical guy. He's kind of got a lot of tools of a top power forward, so he can definitely open up some room on the ice as well." - Rick Nash on Miller's play in the ECF.
It goes without saying that the list of young, talented forwards who struggled with finding consistency in their game early in their careers is a long list with more noteworthy names worth mentioning. The Ohioan scored his 5th goal of the season on December 29th, 2014 and didn't find the back of the net again until February 28th, 2015 against the Flyers. I should point out that he did manage to pick up 7 assists during that depressing odyssey, but he did have a 10 game stretch without any points whatsoever in the middle of that dreadful slump. As good as J.T. has looked when he is on his game and playing with confidence he continued to be a player that disappeared for long stretches last season. We saw Miller ride the pine several times after playing flat or making costly gaffes and watch the next game or few from the press box because of his inability to appease the coaching staff.
Miller was 10th among Rangers' forwards with an average of 12:41 TOI/G in 2014-15 which was a bump up from the 11:27 TOI/G he saw with the Rangers' club that eventually battled the Los Angeles Kings for the 2014 Stanley Cup. After his 18 game stay with the Wolf Pack last season Miller found a way to stay up with the big club even with his sporadic scoring and his lackluster play in his own end. One of the reasons Miller found a way to stay up with the big club after his stay in the minors is because there is no denying he has a lot of the tools necessary to make a dangerous top six forward and he was a great guy to plug in on the second or even the first line when the Rangers' needed a new look or if a key forward was banged up. However, that doesn't mean that Miller saw the ice time and opportunities that he needed to do the most he can do to help the Rangers win and that has been the story of his 114 game career to date.
Let's take a look at some highlights that put some of those top-six forward skills on display.
Making Ray Emery look bad.
Great speed, great shot, and looking a hell of a lot like a goal scorer.
Miller isn't the biggest guy on the ice at 6'1" and 205 lbs, but when he's on the ice he is a physical player that uses his skating ability and aggression to make his presence known to opposing players. Thankfully, Miller hasn't had too many issues with taking penalties despite of his aggressive play in the way that Chris Kreider has. A moment that sticks out from last season that displays Miller's speed and strength is when Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators looked silly by trying to take the body on Miller and getting the worst of it, much to the joy of the Garden Faithful.
That isn't easy to do.
The impact and value of Miller's 10 goals last season should not be overlooked on a Rangers' club that has been desperate for production from its bottom six forwards for the past several seasons. Miller had just 5 goals in his previous 56 NHL regular season games before hitting double digits for the first time in his career last season. However, after scoring 5 goals in his first 14 games of 2014-15, Miller's offense dried up and came in fits and bursts and for most fans and analysts that is what has and still does define the young American forward's career. Inconsistent, undoubtedly gifted, and hard to figure out.
It's hard to call Miller's season a disappointment or a success because of his time in Hartford, how he was deployed by the coaching staff, his streakiness, and the time he spent watching his teammates play while wearing a suit, but I settled on giving Miller a C+ for his play in 2014-15. It was a crucial season for Miller to turn some heads and make a statement about deserving to be a regular in the Rangers' lineup. A 23 point season in 58 games (0.4 P/PG) is hardly a poor effort for a player that turned 22 in March, but the failure to hold onto a regular spot and Miller's continued struggles with consistency and play in his own end are big strikes against him.
The good thing for the Rangers is that 2011's 15th overall pick is still very young and has a lot of room to grow. If J.T. Miller can find a way to put it altogether next season and find some more consistency in his game we could soon be talking about him being a leading contender for a spot on the Rangers' second line. This offseason Miller signed the Rangers' qualifying offer of $874,000 which means that he will be a restricted free agent in the 2016 offseason and is once again in contract year. Miller has some work to do to change the perception that fans, analysts, and coaches have about him and his game and he is looking to do just that in 2015-16.
As always, thank you all for reading and let's go Rangers.
So gang, what grade would you give Miller for his play last season? Where do you see him fitting in the Rangers' 2015-16 lineup? Is he ready to take that jump to be a legitimate middle six forward? Let me know in the comments!
Editor's note: A few technological snafus made this article a lot more difficult to read than it normally would be given the pen it came from, but it appears that all of those issues are now ironed out. Note to self- do not embed HERO charts into articles. The code gremlins don't like it. Not one bit. -Murphy