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If the start of the NHL playoffs were any indication last year, J.T. Miller's up and down regular season wasn't going to be one to remember for him. Despite playing well in flashes, Alain Vigneault didn't trust his 22-year-old center -- to the tune of Miller playing 18 games with the Hartford Wolf Pack over the course of the year.
Things have a funny way of changing quickly in the NHL, though.
Miller started the playoffs being forced into a fourth line role, but he soon moved up the depth cart due to injuries and because of his solid play. Eventually he was moved up to the top-nine and then the top six where he recorded eight points in 19 playoff games and really surged in the Eastern Conference Final loss to Tampa Bay.
Miller has parlayed that success into what has become easily the best season of his young career. With his goal against Boston last week Miller officially joined the 20-20 club (20 goals and 20 assists) and has solidified himself as a top-six player -- despite Vigneault being wary about putting him up there to start the year.
This didn't play a big role in the beginning of the year, but it did when various players went down with injuries. Miller filled in for Rick Nash (even if he didn't fill his role directly) with consistent offense, fantastic (SMART) physicality and much-improved defense. There were games this year where Miller was quite simply the best player on the ice for the Rangers.
And then there's his ever-budding offense, which at times comes in spurts but will sometimes pull you straight out of your seat. The goal against Montreal? That's the type of stuff we've been coming to expect from Miller rather than hope for.
I know the narratives surrounding Kevin Hayes (at least the media-driven ones) are clickbait at worst and incredibly negative at best, but it's hard not to get excited about the two of them combining for the one-two punch down the middle for years to come. Both are big bodies, both are strong on the puck and both possess offensive gifts you can't teach. In Miller's case he needed to break through the wall to get to where he is now (whether or not John Tortorella/Vigneault erected those walls are up for debate) but it seems like Hayes' path is looking similar in that regard.
Still, Miller's surge has helped fill in the gaps between the Mats Zuccarello and Derick Brassard struggles without Nash (possession especially) and has added an offensive punch to the third line when he's been thrown down there. He's not the speed demon Carl Hagelin was (nor is he the defensive monster) but he does add more of a scoring punch and has been there when the Rangers have needed him.
Playoff success often comes down to depth, especially as the second season wears on and star players run hot and cold. The trick is making sure all your top players don't slump at the same time, but since coaches don't have control over puck luck it makes it hard to ensure this doesn't happen. Players like Miller, Hayes, Derek Stepan (since he doesn't have to be primary offense he can be included here) and Chris Kreider have to be able to level the playing field if and when Nash, Brassard, Zuccarello and Eric Staal aren't going. If they aren't going.
This team has enormous defensive issues they need to work through, and they're going to have an issue keeping the puck out of their own net, but this offense does have a chance to out-score anyone in this league.
Miller has been a big part of that. And the Rangers should thank their lucky stars he has been.