J.T. Miller: Requiem for a Captain Who Never Was

A Rangers’ first-round pick in a decade lacking them. A first-line talent on a team jammed to the brim with middle-sixers. A growth and maturation process that’s endearing to every fan base. A leadership pedigree amongst elite peers as a youngster. A willingness to drop the gloves and stand up for himself and his teammates. A sterling confidence to pull off a highlight reel first career goal.

A no-nonsense attitude and no fear of the NHL’s elite.

Great hair.

The story was ready to write itself.

J.T. Miller, on paper, had the resume to be a long-term Rangers captain. With the void created by the trade of Ryan McDonagh to Tampa Bay, the table was set for Miller’s reign and the “C” could have, potentially, moved seamlessly to the #10 sweater. Instead, due to a number of factors, including Miller’s own enigmatic persona, he was offloaded to Tampa Bay with the former captain and the story of Miller as a Ranger comes to a close with no grand ending.

Nothing was handed to J.T. Miller when he broke into the NHL at just 19. At the time, head coach, John Tortorella, as he did with every player, made Miller earn his minutes and challenged him to be a factor all over the ice.

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“He’s going to make that decision for us, as far as staying or going down, with his play,” said Tortorella, who wasn’t afraid to send Chris Kreider to the AHL.

Miller, to his credit, took Tortorella’s directive to heart. “I cannot play to be satisfied. I don’t just want to blend in. I want to make a difference.” This type of understanding is refreshing from a youngster and early on, it translated to the ice. However, with a regime change, some of the same entitlement issues crept up again.

“J.T. has to figure it out and hopefully he will,” Alain Vigneault echoed, 13 months later. “When he does, we’re going to have a good player. If he doesn’t, he will be a good minor league player.”

“He just hasn’t earned the right to be at this level on a regular basis,” he also said. “He needs to show more commitment on the ice and off. Until he does that, he hasn’t earned the right.”

Miller carved out a spot in the NHL as a rookie under John Tortorella. He “earned the right” under Vigneault and proved he belonged in the conversation of talented North American youngsters when he was named to Team North America in 2016. Last year, he posted a career-high 56 points, 34 assists, and plus-17 rating while leading New York’s most dynamic line alongside Kevin Hayes and Michael Grabner. This year, after Derek Stepan was traded, a key role as part of the Rangers’ leadership group was there for the taking. As a true Ranger on the upswing, with a history as a vocal leader, the role was Miller’s to lose.

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“He was always one of the most vocal guys,” Phil Housley said about Miller’s performance in the World Junior Championships. “He was always asking coaches questions pertaining to situations to deliver the message to the guys. I really liked that.”

But despite being spurred by two coaches—both publicly critical of a player they clearly saw potential in—Miller hasn’t risen to the occasion to fill the void left by Stepan. The hunger to lead presented by Housley never materialized, and the fact that it didn’t makes this season all the more perplexing. Miller should have been a top-six regular, should have been a 60-point player and, should have been a leader on a contender.

Instead, he faded.

Rather than blossoming as Mike Richards did in Philadelphia—as a young, physical, talented, agitating, and workmanlike captain—he’s evolved into a talented enigma. Firmly entrenched as one of the dozens of NHLers who tantalize fans with high skill and, at times, high effort, but is only consistent in inconsistency. As such, he’s done nothing to steer the Rangers’ away from the iceberg, even as they’ve been one of several Eastern Conference ships set aimlessly adrift.

Perhaps Miller and Alain Vigneault don’t see the ice the same way and dissatisfaction with coaching caused lethargy. Perhaps the room is stale and toxic, and perhaps Miller’s a part of the reason why. Perhaps the unchanging leadership group in Miller’s tenure made him feel like there was nowhere to grow or, maybe, Miller just doesn’t love professional hockey. Regardless, he has not embraced the opportunity to lead a floundering Rangers squad and failed to show himself as a part of any solution. Hence, he became expendable to a rebuild, particularly before signing the long-term extension that would be needed to keep him as a Blueshirt beyond this year.

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“He wants to stay,” Tortorella once said, bluntly, in response to Miller’s commitment to being a factor all over the ice.

At times, Miller has shown both that he wants to stay and a proclivity to lead a successful team but, this season, disappointingly, Miller never looked like he wanted to stay. Or worse, he never looked like he wanted to work to stay. That, frustratingly, led to his departure.

All told, the end of J.T. Miller’s run in New York is, ultimately, the unfulfilling final chapter of a book that has no satisfying denouement. It’s Disney’s Miracle if the U.S. never beat the Russians or, perhaps more fittingly for the rag-tag group of current Rangers, Slap Shot without Steve Guttenberg stripping down to his jock. It will mark the sluggish end to a strong but not sparkling era of Rangers hockey, and fans will now watch Rangers captains past and almost future look to write a new chapter in Tampa.

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