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What About J.T. Miller As The Fourth Line Center?

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NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Rangers at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It seems like everything Alain Vigneault says draws a crowd now. We’ve already had a few shining examples of this during training camp.

On the most recent episode of Bantering The Blueshirts (Ep. 17 depending on how far back you’re reading this) we talked about this. I even discussed it to an extent when going over whether or not you can read into his lineup decisions before the Rangers’ 5-2 preseason win over the Islanders.

The most recent quote?

Here’s the thing: I actually agree with Vigneault here. In fact, I wrote a whole story about it and concluded the following:

Let’s say Buchnevich struggles in the smaller rinks of North America and Pirri excels. Buchnevich is the better long term asset, and he needs to be given a chance to season even if Pirri brings more to the table right now. Same for Vesey. So sitting either long term to keep Pirri in doesn’t make any sense for the Rangers, even if he’s more talented right now. Right now being the key, because you’d hope and expect Buchnevich and Vesey to be better long-term players. They’re worth making the investment in.

The truth of the matter? Brandon Pirri is far more suited to a top-nine role rather than a traditional fourth line role. One of the knocks on Pirri’s game is his work away from the puck, and that’s a vital piece to a traditional fourth line puzzle.

Pirri is proving that there’s far more below the surface. Grain of salt that it’s been two preseason games (as Adam said on the podcast, Jayson Megna dominated last year’s preseason) but he’s looked really good. He’s been a good part of the power play, is fighting to create offense and looked solid away from the puck.

At this point, it’s insanity to keep him off the team. I’m not backing off my assertion that a fourth line of Jesper Fast - Oscar Lindberg - Michael Grabner would be a perfect fourth line for a defense/PK role but I think Pirri is proving that the Rangers need to re-think things.

But rather than play Pirri on the fourth line at center waiting for Lindberg to get back what about moving J.T. Miller down there?

Hear me out before you go crazy.

Miller is a natural center, and lined up there last year on the power play more often than not. Rather than running Pirri on the fourth line as a center — or not playing him at all -- moving Miller into the fourth line center slot short term makes sense.

In that scenario you’re sort of losing the defense/PK fourth line, but four solid lines that are all skilled isn’t the worst thing in the world. That fourth line can still take tougher assignments (Fast and Grabner would be the wingers in my mind) and Rick Nash - Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello can handle the other share of the tough minutes.

Here’s the lineup I’m thinking:

Nash - Stepan - Zuccarello

Kreider - Zibanejad - Buchnevich

Vesey - Hayes - Pirri

Fast - Miller - Grabner

Then, when Lindberg returns the bottom six shifts to:

Vesey - Hayes - Miller (would need to be sheltered)

Fast - Lindberg - Pirri/Grabner

As a short term solution this gives you a few benefits. For starters it allows you to see if Pirri is really what he’s showing or if this is more of a flash in the pan. It also allows Vigneault to have four competent lines who can all play in any situation.

Miller moving down to the fourth isn’t ideal, but he can still be given power play time and since that line will no longer be a defense-only group, he can still get quality reps there. Remember, this is a comprehensive lineup with skill up and down. That fourth line might not get a lion’s share of the minutes, but they’re also not plugs that you give off shifts to.

Goals aside, Pirri is fighting with Vesey and Buchnevich for a spot on the top-nine. While he’s outplayed both in the preseason, he hasn’t outplayed them enough to earn a spot above them, if that makes sense. Both Vesey and Buchnevich are far more important long term investments, and unless either falls off a cliff, there’s no reason to toss Pirri ahead of them.

So this idea satisfies all aspects of the problem. It gives the Rangers four true lines that can play any situation, it doesn’t put a player in an unnatural position and it keeps the best players on the ice rather than rotting in the press box.

The only issue here is Vigneault will have to adjust (there’s that word again) from a defense/PK fourth line to a skilled up and down lineup. The change is honestly not as glaring as it would have been last year — there’s logic to his idea so long as, you know, actually good defensive players play on the fourth line — and it’s a quick fix to a bigger problem.

You can re-set everything the minute Lindberg gets back. In the event Pirri is still killing it, you keep him in the lineup and slide out Grabner. If he’s struggling, you put him as the 13th forward and leave Grabner on the fourth line (then creating the super defense/PK group). So long as Vigneault keeps the right players, there’s literally no wrong answer to who plays where.

Miller shouldn’t be on the fourth line forever, and the idea isn’t indicative of where he is as a player or where he should be expected to go. The only real drawback here is putting him in a situation that might stunt his growth. This is, ironically, exactly why the Rangers can’t take away a top-nine role from Buchnevich or Vesey.

BUT ... If Vigneault subscribes to this idea, the Rangers basically have two third lines. There’s no real “you’re getting most of the defensive zone starts” group, and since Vigneault is really good with sharing ice time, it’s not like Miller’s going to be punished.

Honestly, I think this might be best. With the state of the defense, rolling four skilled lines would give the Rangers a puncher’s shot in the event games become run and gun.

Plus, it lets you know if you have something long term in Pirri.

The Rangers certainly hope they do, but won’t know unless they let him prove it.