New York Rangers JT Miller pulled a postseason disappearing act

David Hahn/Icon Sportswire

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In the 2017–18 regular season, J.T. Miller was one of the New York Rangers’ best players. The young forward broke through with a 56-point effort to finish second on the team in points. He averaged more points per game than Derek Stepan, Mika Zibanejad and Rick Nash. General manager Jeff Gorton’s decision to sign him to a short bridge deal in the 2016 offseason was beginning to look like a costly mistake.

Then Miller disappeared in the playoffs.

It’s no secret that New York’s big guns were quiet in the postseason. It was one of the largest contributing factors to the team’s early playoff exit. Chris Kreider scoring four points in 12 games just wasn’t enough, but an even greater disappointment was Miller failing to score a goal and picking up just three assists in the playoffs.

The Rangers needed the Miller we all saw in the regular season, the plucky forward who was a key cog in what was maybe the most dangerous third line in hockey.

The Rangers didn’t get that Miller.

Instead, New York fans saw a player who couldn’t buy a goal and played emotional hockey. He had 12 registered giveaways and 10 missed shots in the postseason. Miller’s frustration reached a boiling point when he slammed his stick against the boards after being robbed by Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson in Game 2 of that second-round series. Yet, his emotions were worn on his sleeve long before that.

Miller led the Rangers in penalty minutes in the playoffs. He drew three penalties but took eight of his own. That count doesn’t include his one-sided scrap against Shea Weber of the Montreal Canadiens. Most Ranger fans called that a win at the time because of the player Miller took off the ice, but agitator proved to be a poor role for Miller.

Against the Canadiens and Senators, Miller showed flashes of the offense that helped him approach 60 points in the regular season, but the puck refused to go in. One secondary assist in six games against Montreal wasn’t enough for Alain Vigneault to keep him in a scoring role. Eventually Jesper Fast took his spot on the third line with Michael Grabner and Kevin Hayes. He finished the playoffs skating with Oscar Lindberg and Tanner Glass.

“I don’t know how I want to say this, but it’s a different role,” Miller told NHL.com’s Dan Rosen before the Rangers were eliminated by Ottawa. “You know you’re playing on the fourth line. It is more simple. There’s less plays being made. It’s more getting in, banging bodies, being responsible.
“I definitely have gotten in trouble when I play up in the lineup,” Miller continued. “I want to make a play all the time. I want the puck on my stick. I think mistakes are going to happen, but it seems that simpler is working for me.”

That’s not the kind of language confident players use.

He didn’t look comfortable in his fourth-line role. Vigneault limited his even-strength ice time to an average of 12:19 per game in the Senators series. It was anything but a vote of confidence for a young forward who shared the team lead in game-winning-goals in the regular season.

On the fourth line he regularly carried the puck into the offensive zone, only to find that his linemates weren’t where he needed them to be.

“I told [Lindberg and Glass] I like to make plays, I want the puck, I want them to give me the puck and get open,” Miller told Rosen. “I think we can be successful doing that.”

The trio had limited success in its time together. Miller set up Lindberg for two even-strength goals. They were the only primary points of his postseason, a nightmare Miller will be eager to put behind him with another contract year ahead.