Rangers Inside And Out
By Sean Hartnett
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J.T. Miller wasn’t supposed to be on the plane when the Rangers headed west to Phoenix to embark on a nine-game road trip to open their 2013-14 regular season campaign.
A nagging hamstring injury forced the 20-year-old to miss out on crucial opportunities to impress new head coach Alain Vigneault during training camp.
More importantly, Miller was absent from the Rangers’ lineup during the first three games of their preseason schedule. Fellow youngsters Danny Kristo, Marek Hrivik, Chris Kreider and Oscar Lindberg were getting vital chances to audition for Vigneault that Miller sorely desired.
“Obviously, I came in here dinged up a little bit — which wasn’t on the agenda,” Miller said. “It happens and I tried to work through it. I got a little behind and I tried to make up for it as quick as I could and as fast as I could.”
MILLER FORCED HIMSELF ONTO THE ROSTER
For those who don’t know Miller, his personality burns with an apparent competitive fire to succeed. Miller was itching for his shot to impress Vigneault. He firmly captured the attention of his new head coach by scoring a goal in his preseason debut against the Edmonton Oilers.
Miller proved to be one of the Rangers’ most consistent players over their final three preseason games. He shined brightly in their final tune-up in Las Vegas against the Los Angeles Kings. Not only did Miller score the lone goal in the Rangers’ 4-1 defeat, he was strong on the puck, skated with vigor and demonstrated a physical edge.
Vigneault had his players wearing training camp t-shirts bearing the motto: “Clean Slate – Grab It!” Well, Miller took that mantra to heart by winning a place on the Rangers’ roster despite long odds.
Miller survived the cut to begin the season, while Hrivik, Lindberg, Kristo and Kreider were sent down to Hartford. Swedish rookie Jesper Fast, 21, and Miller had claimed the final two forward spots on Vigneault’s regular season roster.
Vigneault said he is excited by Miller’s collection of abilities and is eager to cultivate the full talent of the East Palestine, Ohio native.
“I see potential in that young man,” Vigneault said. “I see a real solid skill-set. Like any other young player, he’s going to hopefully get better every day. He’s gonna have the right attitude to push himself to become the best player that he can be. There’s definitely a lot of upside there. It’s our job as a coaching staff, and his job as a player to work on becoming the best he can be.”
It’s indeed a fresh start for Miller as he begins his second NHL season. He even has a new number on his back. With Marian Gaborik not calling MSG home anymore, Miller traded number 47 for the familiar number 10 he’s worn throughout the majority of his hockey life.
Miller is not only a year older, he’s also a year wiser. It sounds like a well-worn cliché, but it’s entirely true in Miller’s case. He said he’s learning to manage the fire that burns inside him.
“I just try to say confident,” Miller said. “I try not to get down too much. I’m a pretty competitive guy. I used to have a bad attitude and get down on myself. I just try to work through that by staying positive, just being confident going forward and trying not think about the past too much — just always be moving forward and being prepared.”
When Miller first entered the NHL, he quickly developed a reputation of being overconfident in own his abilities. Former head coach John Tortorella and Miller weren’t an ideal match for one another. Tortorella was obviously a keen disciplinarian, who required forwards to fit into his prototype, featuring a firm grasp on positioning and defensive awareness. Tortorella’s leash was short and Miller was an unusually uninhibited rookie.
Miller made a promising debut against the Devils in Newark on Feb. 5, then scored two goals in his thrilling Madison Square Garden debut. He became the first Rangers’ teenager since Alexei Kovalev to record a multi-goal regular season game.
Afterward, Tortorella described Miller’s interesting personality. He liked Miller’s raw potential and assuredness. You could tell, though, that the brash Miller gave the uncompromising Tortorella his share of headaches.
“He has some bite to him,” Tortorella said. “I’d rather have a guy that you need to tame a little bit as he’s learning to be a pro, then to try to get someone to play with some spunk. I like the way he carries himself. He’s got some good strut to his game.”
From that point on, the goals dried up and Miller found himself yo-yoing back and forth between New York and Hartford. He finished the 2012-13 season with an underwhelming two goals and two assists in 26 games. He also suffered a problematic wrist injury in March that killed any chance of him making the Rangers’ playoff roster. He was eventually shut down and sent home by the organization in May.
Now, all of that frustration is behind him. Miller said he is keeping his eyes open and trying to learn as much as he can from those around him, particularly veteran linemate Dominic Moore.
“He does all the little things.” Miller said of Moore. “Something I can really look forward to is just trying to watch for all the little things that he does and try to make sure I can do them as consistently as him. He’s definitely a guy to look up to when you’re playing with him as a younger guy.”
Moore said he can clearly see the obvious potential in Miller’s game.
“He’s been very good,” Moore said. “He’s done well with the opportunities. He plays a smart game and he’s shown a lot of good things.”
Moore said he is also impressed by Miller’s positioning and has noticed plenty of growing attributes from the 2011 first-round pick.
“He’s got good skills, he’s a pretty balanced player,” Moore said. “I see a lot of good potential there. He plays a heads up game positionally. There’s a lot of things to like about his game.”
Miller credits veterans like Ryan Callahan, Brian Boyle, Brad Richards and Rick Nash for being sounding boards throughout his young career.
“Everybody’s pretty helpful, obviously,” he said. “You’ve got Cally who’s a great role model. Guys like Brad Richards and Rick Nash, who’ve been around for awhile. Those were guys who I looked up to when I was younger. I played with Brian Boyle for the majority of my time here last year. Guys like that have been really helpful to me.”
Miller shares the enthusiast approach of Callahan. It’s clear that he wants to be a difference-maker and follow the lead of the Rangers’ celebrated captain.
“He’s wearing the C for a reason,” Moore said of Callahan. “He’s obviously great off the ice, but just the way he plays on the ice — he can lead a team. He’s a one-of-a-kind guy.”
While chatting with Miller, you can quickly understand that he doesn’t want to be an ordinary player. Miller has a bit of swagger about him. He thinks he’s good. Now that he’s tempered his confidence, 2013-14 might be the season that Miller puts it all together and meets expectations.
VIGNEAULT: FAST’S SKILL-SET GIVES HIM NHL OPPORTUNITY
Fast was the other youngster who caught Vigneault’s eye. blessed with incredible wheels, The 5-foot-11 Swedish lightweight said Vigneault’s system suits his abilities.
“I work hard, and backcheck and forecheck,” Fast said. “It fits my game pretty good. It’s a new coach, I’m new here. I’m just trying to take advantage of that opportunity.”
Fast is clinging close to the Rangers’ “Swedish House Mafia” of Henrik Lundqvist, Carl Hagelin and Anton Stralman.
“Everyone has been kind to me,” Fast said. “If I have any questions, I ask one of the Swedes.”
Fast dropped the “h” from his name. He was previously known as Jesper Fasth. It’s fiiting given his jet-like speed and ability to find clean patches of ice.
“What I like about him is his hockey sense,” Vigneault said. “He seems to know where to go when he doesn’t have the puck, and what to do. His skill-set permits him to play at this level right now.”
Vigneault stopped himself from getting carried away with praise for Fast and Miller. He hinted that each have challenges in front of them, but remains confident that he made the right choices by naming them to his opening night roster.
“That being said, young kids in training camp and in exhibitions sometimes look good, and then when all the big boys arrive — they don’t look as good,” Vigneault said. “What I’ve seen from both those young men, I think they’ll be able to come in and contribute at this level right now.”
Miller and Fast will be two players to keep an eye on, particularly as Callahan and Hagelin find their ways back into Vigneault’s lineup since recovering from torn labrum surgeries. Callahan has been wearing a full-contact jersey during practices, while Hagelin was still wearing a yellow non-contact jersey as of Friday.
For now, Miller and Fast will get their chance to lock down a place when the Rangers take on the Coyotes on Thursday night and force someone else to make way when Callahan and Hagelin return.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey
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