One of the major story lines going into training camp was the question of who would replace Martin St. Louis' spot in the Rangers' top-six. With no obvious heir, the Rangers opted to make it an open competition. The spot was there for the taking and it was up to someone to make it his own.
The white smoke is finally billowing. Four months and 46 regular season games later, it appears that one player has been chosen. Rather, one player is making the coaching staff choose him. J.T. Miller's overtime winner against Vancouver last night was just another highlight in what is becoming a breakout season for the 2011 first-round pick. His first three seasons of pro hockey, rightly or wrongly, featured inconsistent playing time at the NHL level and multiple demotions to the American Hockey League. Now, he has not only cemented his spot on the NHL roster, but at least for now has turned into one of the most important forwards on the team.
Indeed, the 22-year-old has registered 10 goals and 12 assists in 46 games, which are solid numbers all-around. In particular, he has picked up his offensive production in the last few months. After averaging close to 13 minutes-per-game in bottom-six duty for the first quarter of the season, it is logical that Miller's production has improved - 10 points in his last 16 games - ever since receiving both a bump in ice time and more offensively apt linemates. It creates the chicken and egg argument; is Vigneault giving Miller an improved role because he's playing well? Or is Miller playing well because, after spending all of last season and parts of this one rotating between the press box and grinding duty, Vigneault is finally giving him a legitimate chance to play big minutes alongside skilled players?
In any case, Miller is producing. And credit to Vigneault for putting him in a position to do so. Of course, it's one thing to have a good stretch of offensive output, while another to make such play routine. Fortunately, the underlying numbers on Miller look good. He's not going to continue to score on 21.4% of his shots, like he has been dating back to mid-December. But the long stretches without goals early in the season were similarly unsustainable and not a fair reflection of Miller's play. The major indicator of Miller's performance this season is that he leads all Rangers forwards in 5v5 score-adjusted shot attempts, at 51.1%. That is, while adjusting for score, the Rangers have the puck more during J.T. Miller's shifts than they do for those of any other forward. In fact, Miller's relative shot attempts - how much more the Rangers have the puck with Miller on the ice compared to without him - is 66th among the 358 NHL forwards who have played at least 300 minutes at 5v5 this season.
The biggest criticism of Miller is his tendency to make some truly terrible decisions with the puck. To some extent it's fair. He loves to carry the puck through the middle of the ice. He is eager to take on defenders one-on-one at the blue line. He attempts to make many optimistic passes. Sometimes he does try to do too much and it can result in costly turnovers; the one against the Capitals two games ago being one such example. However, this can become a case of not being able to see the forest for the trees. With few exceptions, there is no such thing as a low-risk/high-reward play in hockey. What exists is a delicate balance of trying to make big plays without having it backfire too often.
Miller seems to offset the bad with plenty of good. One of the best scoring chances in hockey comes off of "slot line passes." These are plays in which a shot comes after a pass is made through the slot below the top of the faceoff circles. Here are two examples from Miller.
Opportunities to make these passes are hard to come by and are usually even tougher to pull off. NHL teams are well-coached and five-man defensive units usually prioritize defending the middle of the ice. Thus, creating these kinds of plays requires possession of the puck, timing, and the ability to find the vulnerability in the opposition's setup. But being able to complete them is extremely beneficial, as shots off of slot line passes go into the net roughly one in every three times. As of Sunday's game against Washington, J.T. Miller ranks second among all Rangers in slot line passes, with 12 (Mats Zuccarello has 16). In fact, no other Ranger comes close. Keith Yandle and Derick Brassard, both brilliant playmakers in their own rights, are next in line with five each.
This isn't to completely excuse some of the naive, glaring mistakes that Miller sometimes makes. However, on a team consisting of veterans who haven't exactly played perfect hockey this season, the occasional miscalculation from a young player should be easy to swallow when he is otherwise playing an ambitious game and making high-percentage plays such as these. It is important to remember that he is still just 22 years old. "Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!" is what Ms. Frizzle of The Magic School Bus would always tell her students. J.T. Miller is still a student of the game, and the only way he's going to learn how to improve is through trial and error. He's going to make bad decisions and they'll sometimes have ugly results. In the long run, he's going to be become a better player because of it. For now, Miller is proving to be the top-six forward the Rangers have lacked for much of the season. One who plays a brave offensive game and makes plays that result in pucks going into the net. He's shown flashes of it in seasons' past, but now is doing so on a more consistent basis. With continued opportunity and patience he'll only get better, learning how to cut down on those dreadful decisions while still making the bold, dynamic plays that he has all season long for the Rangers.