J.T. Miller’s Journey: From AV’s doghouse to top line star

Miller scores his first playoff goal (Photo Scott Audette/Getty Images)

Miller scores his first playoff goal (Photo Scott Audette/Getty Images)

J.T. Miller has not had it easy under head coach Alain Vigneault. The former 15th overall selection in the 2011 entry draft was on the Hartford Express between the Rangers and Wolf Pack (NYR AHL affiliate) for the first few years. In 2013, he came into camp out of shape and that must’ve left a real bad taste in Alain Vigneault’s mouth.

That season he played 30 games and registered 6 points as he was shuttled back and forth between the two clubs. On the 6th demotion Vigneault said to the press:

[su_quote cite=”NY POST” url=”http://nypost.com/2014/04/03/vigneault-j-t-miller-hasnt-earned-the-right-to-stay-in-pros/”]“He just hasn’t earned the right to be at this level on a regular basis. He needs to show more commitment on the ice and off. Until he does that, he hasn’t earned the right.”[/su_quote]

This year he came into camp fit and determined, but due to issues at center and his difficulty grasping the position was still riding the Express to Hartford. On October 17th, he was sent down for AHL journeyman, Chris Mueller who was seasoned at center. When Derek Stepan returned, it eventually opened up an opportunity for Miller back on the wing.

He returned against the Flyers on 11/29/14 and scored a goal and an assist in his first game back. He started to look strong on the puck at both ends and was producing with 4 goals and 5 points in 8 games. Then the bottom fell out again and he was scratched in late December.

Miller is playing like a star (Photo by Scott Audette/Getty Images)

Miller is playing like a star (Photo by Scott Audette/Getty Images)

Miller had been playing extremely well on both sides of the puck. Alain Vigneault asserted that he felt he could have been better versus the Caps (12/23/14), but it wasn’t adding up. It was obvious that the coach just didn’t feel Miller was maximizing his potential.

Pat Leonard of the NYDN reported the next day of the scratch, JT Miller was tense at his locker, with a team public relations representative hovering close by, after skating as the Rangers’ extra forward. He braced for the inevitable question about his status, at which point he responded tersely. “Whatever is best for the team,” the third-year forward said. “I just hope we win.”

The scratch worked as J.T. Miller settled down and he picked up 5 goals and 18 points in the team’s last 45 games while playing 3rd and 4th line minutes. Slowly, he was earning Alain Vigneault’s trust. That trust finally earned him a top line spot this series and it’s paid off for both Miller and his coach.

Before this series, Miller was averaging 14:01 minutes per game through the first two rounds. The injury to Mats Zuccarello, Martin St. Louis‘ slump and Kevin Hayes‘ inconsistencies have led to a 1st line spot and more ice time (15:07). The result was a 1 goal and 4 point performance in the Rangers biggest game of the season to date and his 5th point in this series. Miller had only 3 points total against Pittsburgh and Washington.

[su_quote cite=”NY POST” url=”http://nypost.com/2015/05/27/the-challenge-that-turned-derick-brassard-into-a-game-6-hero/”]“I’m just trying to drink in the experience,” Miller said. “I got a taste last year in the Pittsburgh series, being down, in the last series being down as well. A lot of the older guys have a lot of experience. They’re so calm, there’s not much panic.”[/su_quote]

The experiences from 2013 to yesterday’s crucial Game 6 are paying off. Alain Vigneault’s tough love approach appears to be working with this young and budding power forward. If the Rangers can win Game 7 on Friday, they will return to the Stanley Cup Final for the second consecutive year.

If the Rangers hope to win their first Championship since 1994, J.T. Miller must continue to play at this elite level. He has won in his career before, most recently at the 2013 World Junior Championships. His 2 goals and 9 points were instrumental in winning the Gold Medal for the United States.

However, no one should be surprised about the character of this kid. Reporter, Mike Morreale wrote this story on his blog in 2013 when he asked Miller what he did with the gold medal?

“It’s actually with my great grandfather.”

He went on to tell me that his great grandfather, 94-year-old Ed Miller, had passed away a few weeks ago. He said they were very close.

As a special tribute and in honor of his great grandfather, J.T. decided to put his gold medal in the casket with his great-grandfather and keep it there. Amazing! He never retrieved it.

I actually had to ask J.T. again after listening to him. “So, is the medal with great-granddad now?”

Miller: “Yes, it’s buried with him.”

The Rangers have a special player on their hands. He is big and physical with a good skill set. More importantly, he has integrity and character which are things you can’t teach. As J.T. Miller continues to mature and grow as a hockey player, it wouldn’t shock me if one day he’s wearing a letter on his sweater.

For now, Alain Vigneault and J.T. Miller should be applauded. It’s been a long road to this point, but it’s a journey that was obviously well worth it. The Rangers and their fans certainly think so as they prepare for Game 7 and the chance to play for the Stanley Cup.