Akin to a budding flower, J.T. Miller’s emergence this year was both beautiful and, at times, fragile.
Miller began making waves last year, when he joined the 20-20 club and posted 43 points in 82 games. This year was yet another step forward, with the winger tying his career high with 22 goals and adding 34 assists for 56 points. It wasn’t just situational offense, either – of those 56 points, only seven were with the man advantage. It’s also worth noting that Miller notched four shorthanded points as well.
In a year that saw the Rangers get off to one of the hottest starts imaginable, Miller was doing the heavy lifting when the main faucets of offense clogged up. Between himself, Kevin Hayes, and Michael Grabner, Miller was part of one of the more dominant lines the Rangers threw onto the ice all year. In terms of consistency, you’d be hard pressed to find a forward who was more active than Miller. Miller finished the regular season second with his 56 points — nestled right next to Mats Zuccarello and his 59 for the team lead. To help paint the picture a little more, he was 4th on the team in assists and goals. He was good. Damn good.
Miller’s ascension to the top of the offensive charts for the Rangers is bittersweet. With Jeff Gorton electing to lock Miller up last year on a bridge deal (thanks to a reluctance to buy Dan Girardi out at the time), the Rangers have Miller for one more year at a $2.75-million cap hit. Next year that number is going to balloon up by nearly double (if he keeps up this pace), but that’s a problem the Rangers have for another day.
As a big body, Miller learned to use his strength a little more this year. He was far more active around the net, and worked well in the corners. It helped that Grabner’s speed opened the door to create extra space for Miller, and that Hayes is an equally big body who isn’t afraid to bang and smash. On a team that doesn’t have a true sniper, Miller was one of the more efficient shooters on the team (without rocking an insanely inflated SH%). It probably also helped that he wasn’t thrust onto the fourth line again this season – amazing what happens when a player both plays with skill and understands their role on the team.
Where Miller fell off this year was in the second season. His three assists in 12 games were an enormous disappointment -- not to mention disastrous when coupled with Hayes’ and Chris Kreider’s struggles as well. He looked invisible more often than not, and for a guy who had just had a coming out party, his lack of a playoff presence was alarming to say the least.
I think it’s fair to assume he might have been playing hurt, or simply wore down. He didn’t miss a single game all year, and his final playoff game was his 94th of the year. Still, at just 24 you wouldn’t expect fatigue to play a significant role in his struggles.
I also believe it would be fair to claim Grabner was a big part of his offensive eruption this year. Miller found himself with far more space thanks to Grabner’s speed, and both Miller and Hayes saw analytical declines without him on the ice.
The overreaction from fans about his playoff struggles are to be expected, but there should be a small level of concern as well. It’s not like Montreal or Ottawa did anything particularly different in covering him, and other players (like Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast) seemed to do just fine on their own. Is it possible he just ran cold at the end? Of course it is, that happens all the time.
Hopefully this was a learning experience for him. I can see him playing a bigger role on the power play (and perhaps he should get one), but I also think he’s refining his game to become a more complete player. Miller tends to be a player who runs in straight lines, that often can be defended easily enough when the lanes are clogged. That’s part of why he struggled in April and May, but it’s not the easiest thing in the world to change.
If we were judging Miller on just the regular season, I’d have to give him an A. But because the playoffs are a part of this grade as well, and his performance was so disappointing, it drops his overall grade to a B/B-.