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The Case for JT Miller in the New York Rangers’ Top-Six

New York Rangers forward J.T. Miller has had a rather interesting start to his NHL career. Drafted 15th overall at the 2011 NHL Draft, the Ohio native made his debut in the lockout-shortened 2013 season — the same season that would end up being John Tortorella’s last with the club. Tortorella liked Miller’s attitude and style of play, and the often-critical former head coach even gave a positive forecast of the forward’s future in the pros.

But no amount of optimism could trump the obvious need for Miller to develop further in the minors, so his rookie season lasted just 26 regular-season games in which he scored two goals and two assists.

Miller’s reputation was tarnished, however, when Alain Vigneault came into the fold. Gone was the unwavering support he seemed to have from the former bench boss, as Vigneault kept him on a short leash. Miller played mostly bottom-six minutes in the 2013-14 season, struggling to find his niche and offensive production (he scored just six points in 30 regular-season games).

But the talent was clearly there. Miller put up 42 points (15-27-42) in 41 games with the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack that year.

Miller came back for the playoffs, where he dressed in only four games (he registered two assists) during the Rangers’ run to the Stanley Cup Final. Being a healthy scratch with something to prove while your team makes a run like that never feels good, and it seems as though that was the tipping point for him. He came into camp in 2014 like a new player.

But this year, he knows he has the greatest opportunity to secure a top-six spot on the Rangers roster than he ever has before.

I want a better start to my season. The last couple of years I only made it a couple games or two or three and then I was up and down. Obviously the situation is a bit different this year, but I still want to have a better start and not take anything for granted.

– J.T. Miller told Blueshirts United

At this point, he really can’t afford to take anything for granted. Though he may have gotten himself on Vigneault’s good side last year, moving up from the fourth line at the beginning of the season to the first line with Derick Brassard and Rick Nash by the postseason, no spot is a guaranteed when a new season begins.

It’s fairly certain that both Nash and Chris Kreider will be top-six wingers, and it appears as though Kevin Hayes may line up on the wing for the first time this year after playing center for the majority of last season. So that leaves one top-six wing spot up for grabs, and Miller is going to have an uphill battle to fight with Mats Zuccarello if he wants to prove that he deserves it.

Miller is going to have to prove that he deserves the spot over a veteran who was just recently signed to a four-year, $4.5 million extension.

However, he may have lucked out with perhaps the easiest competition. Miller is 6’1″/205 lbs., while Zuccarello is 5’7″/179 lbs. Miller established career-highs in NHL games (58), goals (10), assists (13) and points (23) in the 2014-15 season while Zuccarello went from 59 points in 77 games in 2013-14 to 49 points in 78 games during the 2014-15 season. Miller broke-out in the playoffs this past spring with a goal and seven assists in 19 games — Zuccarello suffered a dangerous injury that sidelined him just five games into the postseason.

Zuccarello has recovered from the scary injuries he sustained, but Miller may come in a lot more conditioned, in-shape and ready to play than Zuccarello will this season. Miller’s tenacity and grit is needed, especially in the top-six with players like Nash and Derek Stepan who are strangers to confrontation (most of the time). He has a lot to offer, but just like last year, he needs to be given a chance – or better yet, earn his chance.

Regardless, he’s willing to do whatever it takes to help the team win:

I can’t get distracted by it (being watch closely by Vigneault in camp), but I see the opportunities out there with what’s going on throughout the team. I will just try and play my best in whatever roles I am asked. It’s about doing whatever I can to benefit the team. I can play a lot of different roles, and think I have shown more maturity in my game, but still have a lot to learn.

– Miller

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