Stop me if this sounds familiar: a heralded first-round pick impressed immediately in his first professional season, but struggled as a sophomore and spent much of that season in the American Hockey League. In his third year, the prospect looked like a lock for a full-time job out of training camp, but was sent back to Hartford after just a few games. But about a month later, the player was back in New York and the light bulb had finally clicked on – he was a major contributor from then on.
Indeed, Chris Kreider amazed us with five playoff goals in his first NHL action out of college, then spent much of 2012-2013 with the Wolf Pack. He spent six more games in Hartford at the start of last season before reaching Broadway for good.
J.T. Miller’s path has been very similar. The 2011 first-round pick began his pro career at a much younger age than Kreider, but he, too, impressed in 26 games with the Blueshirts in 2012-2013, then left fans a bit disappointed last year by failing to break out and split the season between the Rangers and Wolf Pack. Miller looked like the best forward at training camp in September, but was quickly demoted to Hartford after just three games in October. Miller returned to the Rangers on November 29th, and he’s posted three points in four games since then while playing primarily with Dominic Moore and Jesper Fast before a stint in the top-six alongside Derek Stepan and Marty St. Louis on Monday.
Is Miller a Ranger for good now? It’s very difficult to say, especially with Tanner Glass again healthy and Alain Vigneault still refusing to take him out of the lineup. But Miller has been at least good enough to make it an easy decision for New York to send Anthony Duclair to play in the World Junior Championships for Team Canada from December 26th to January 5th.
That suggests that Miller will get a long look, and even with Glass back, there may finally be an opening. Lee Stempniak has slowed down after a tremendous start and Vigneault seems willing to send him to the press box in favor of a young body. If Miller continues to produce, it might make sense to slot him alongside Carl Hagelin and Kevin Hayes on the third line.
Just like Kreider, Miller has displayed physical gifts beyond his years early in his career, but his defensive deficiencies and general inconsistency have kept him from becoming a regular. Miller has been consistently dominant in Hartford and is clearly much too good for the minors, but those problems have held many talented players back. However, over the last few games, Miller has been all over the puck and playing with more bite.
Frustration with Miller has been high just as it was over Kreider, but Vigneault’s pointed comments about Miller’s commitment last year probably hurt perception more than anything else. Then again, John Tortorella once said similar things about Kreider.