J.T. Miller by Lisa Gansky
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J.T. Miller, True Ranger, Leading New York’s Hottest Line

For the Rangers, who have used balanced scoring depth for success through the first half of the year, the line of Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan, and Mats Zuccarello has emerged as a legitimate first line. But, sneakily, considering the smaller names and smaller contracts, New York’s “third line”,—if you dare call them that—of J.T. Miller, Michael Grabner, and Kevin Hayes has been even better. In fact, they’ve been elite relative to the entire league.

The three first-round draft picks took slightly different avenues to get to Broadway. While the Rangers took a flier on the speedy Grabner, looking to replace that which they lost when Carl Hagelin was traded, Hayes was a coveted free agent after he spurned Chicago, who originally drafted him 24th overall in 2010. Miller, on the other hand, was a Rangers pick who has worked his way through this system and, perhaps because of that, is leading the way for one of the best lines in hockey.

Over the course of the year, the trio, who found success earlier this season but were broken up due to injuries, has been the Rangers’ second-most deployed line. At a 9.57% and rising deployment frequency, they trail only the aforementioned Stepan line in ice time together. From the get-go, they clicked.

Through the nine games New York played in October, Miller led the team with nine points and trailed only Ryan McDonagh with six assists. Grabner was the team’s co-leader with five goals, and the slimmed-down Kevin Hayes had six points. After the February 13th win in Columbus, Miller (46 points) and Hayes (42 points) rank first and second on the team in scoring while Grabner (26 goals) leads the Rangers in goals. While they might still get dubbed the team’s third line, their production has cemented them as, at the very least, a 1(b) unit.

That holds true for their standing across the entire league. In the 20 games since Christmas you could make the argument that the trio has been the best line in hockey. Over that span, amongst players who have played at least 15 games (the number that Hayes has played) Hayes leads the league in points per 60 minutes (4.5) and assists per 60 minutes (3.55), J.T. Miller is 4th in points per 60 minutes (4.33) and 6th in assists per 60 minutes (2.71), and Michael Grabner leads the league in goals per 60 minutes (2.38). While the three lack the name recognition of other top lines in the NHL, their performance is top notch.

What punctuates the effectiveness of the line is that they do the majority of their work at even strength. Combined, just six of their 59 combined points over the last 20 games have come on the powerplay. They’ve combined for the exact same six points while shorthanded, where thousands of words could be devoted to the three who, with Jesper Fast, Rick Nash and Derek Stepan have greatly improved the Rangers’ PK.

This goal came on December 11th, but is pretty enough to share again.

It’s hard to place a finger on exactly what makes this line click. Grabner’s season has been a revelation—a throwback of sorts to 2010-11 when he scored 34 goals in 76 games. Hayes matured in the offseason, got in shape, and has started to fully employ his combination of size and skill with the puck on his stick. And of course, all three have first-round pedigree.

But it’s Miller, New York’s only draft pick of the three, who went the maturation process in this system after Alain Vigneault called out his professionalism, who has developed into an on-ice leader not for just this line, but the entire team. Now a bonafide three-zone star and the catalyst to this line’s success, his physicality, forechecking, defensive zone savvy, and unrivaled playmaking ability have made him the most vital cog in the wheel.

As Brett Cyrgalis noted in the NY Post, “When Grabner was asked if he just has gotten used to Miller finding him all over the ice, he let out that big Austrian smile.”

As Miller and Grabner continued to produce while Hayes was injured last month, it’s plainly evident that Miller is the guy who stirs the drink. That’s fitting as the only “original” Ranger on the line. It’ll be tough for the Blueshirts to hold onto all three when the expansion draft comes (fingers crossed they can finagle keeping Grabner), but Miller’s the catalyst for that line and, should he continue his rise as a true Ranger, he could become the face of this team in the very near future.

Mike Valvano
I'm all about that action, boss.

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