NEWARK — Last year was a big one for J.T. Miller, which means this coming year is even bigger.
It’s bigger because Miller wants it to be, because he has embraced the idea that he is a regular now, with an important role, on a team that needs him to be better.
For the first time in his career, Miller has a spot among the top-nine forwards all but sewn up, and that means he could play on any of the top three lines – to some degree it may not be possible to distinguish the Rangers’ first line from its third.
Miller, coming off a World Cup of Hockey in which he played just one of the three tournament games (and two of the exhibitions) for Team North America, made his preseason debut Saturday against the Devils. Because he had played just the one tournament game, and had not played in more than a week, Miller was anxious to get right into the preseason.
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault stuck him right in an enviable spot, too, in what has been rookie Pavel Buchnevich’s place on the right of Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad. That line has been fabulous in high-paced workouts and drills in training camp, and in its previous exhibition against the Islanders Tuesday (Zibanejad had a goal and two assists, Kreider a goal and an assist).
“You know, this is one of the first years I feel prepared and know what to expect and feel confident now,” said Miller, who had career bests in goals (21), assists (22), points (43), played all 82 games, and was third on the team in hits (174). That earned him a new two-year contract with a $2.75 million annual cap hit.
Miller is a guy with a motor, one seemingly built for the playoffs with his combination of speed, skill and willingness to be physically involved. What he needs – and he knows it better than anybody – is to develop consistency.
“I feel really ready to take my game to another level,” he said. “Now I know what it takes, especially away from the puck, to be elite. For a while I feel like I was just trying to prove myself offensively and when that happens you kind of get away from other parts of your game. So I’m glad I had a full season under my belt and I’m certainly looking forward to building off last year.”
He was asked if he has set goals for himself, and maturely answered:
“I don’t like to look at numbers too much, but there are goals,” he said. “A lot of it I just said, and my issues before have been away from the puck and just establishing consistency, so if I can just do that, stay consistent and build my game every day, I think it will be a good start.”
Vigneault called Miller one of the “Young Guns” – a nickname earned by the extremely talented 23-and-under Team North America – and said that Miller surely will feel he has something to prove
Vigneault has handed out some tough love to Miller, challenging him to make a commitment and to learn to do the right things with the puck and without it. Two seasons ago, Vigneault said Miller would have to decide if he will be an NHL player; otherwise, Vigneault said, he will be a very good AHL player.
Now he’s an NHL player, looking to be an even better one.
THIS DAY IN RANGERS HISTORY
· Sep. 30, 2011 – Playing against his former club team, the Frolunda Indians, in Sweden, Henrik Lundqvist led the Rangers to a 4-2 victory.
· Oct. 1, 1999 – The Rangers tied the Oilers 1-1 on the night the Oilers retired Wayne Gretzky’s jersey.
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