With J.T. Miller’s explosive start to the season, my colleague, Phil Kocher has written a very informative and detailed article on why the Rangers management missed the boat when they re-signed the young forward to a two-year, $2.75M AAV bridge contract this past summer. To be fair, Phil and I had a similar discussion on the BlueshirtsBrotherHood.com forum at the time of the signing, so he did not write that recent article benefiting from the hindsight of Miller’s impressive start to the season where he’s scoring at a point per game clip. He’s held that view since the signing — Phil was wrong then, and even in light of Miller’s success through 13 games, he’s wrong now.
There are two vacuums that you could look at J.T. Miller’s re-signing in and come to the conclusion that he should have been extended to something like a five-year, $4.25M-$4.5M AAV contract. You could look at the start he’s had to this season and lament, “if only”. You could also look at the $2.5M or so the Rangers had in available cap space and say, “I sure wish we gave Miller $1.4M of that and locked him up for five years instead of two.”
We don’t exist in a vacuum, though. The first argument assumes he’ll maintain something resembling this pace over the next 69 games and into the playoffs. Yet Miller’s history suggests otherwise. Last season prior to his new contract, he had separate 8 game (February 21 – March 8) and 7 game (November 28 – December 11) point droughts along with another 10 game span (October 13 – November 6) where he put up just two points, along with the final 7 games of the regular season (March 27 – April 9) where he again had just two points. This accounts for 40% of his season when he produced just 4 points. He also produced in streaks as well. He opened the season (October 7 – October 10) with 4 points in his first 3 games. He had 7 points in 8 games (December 12 – December 30), 10 points in 10 games (January 16 – February 8), 4 points in back to back games (February 17 & February 18) and 8 points in 10 games (March 13 – April 2).
None of this is a knock on the young forward or putting a ceiling on his ability to produce, it’s just the nature of the 40-50 point player. They are consistently inconsistent. Yet it does create a context for his hot start. He even put a respectable 3 points in 5 postseason games last season, but they all came in a single game. In the four games in which he did not score, he had a combined plus/minus rating of minus-6. That’s not all on J.T. Miller. The team was outclassed by the eventual Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins. He did contribute to that failure, though. Further, his career playoff production through 28 matches, is just one goal, and 12 assists for 13 points. It can be very damaging in a cap world to pay a player based on a small sample size. Even if we had a time machine and could go back, knowing what we know now about his season start, it still wouldn’t justify a long-term deal rather than a bridge contract.
As I said, Phil wasn’t looking at 12 points in 11 games (now 13 in 13) and assuming that Miller was now a point per game player. Instead, he was looking at the modest point per game gains that Miller had made each season and supposed that he would continue on that path. And look, he’s probably pretty accurate in that assumption. The mistake Phil makes is in how he glosses over the salary cap situation the Rangers found themselves in when it came time to hammer out RFA deals for not just Miller, but also Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes. He doubled down on that by bringing up Derek Stepan’s similar situation that occurred a couple of years ago but again neglected the salary cap space the Rangers had available at the time.
This brings us to our second vacuum. It would almost always be a good idea to lock up young players for long-term deals when they prove they can be…let’s say 40-point players at the moment, with 50-60 point upside. If you sign a J.T. Miller or a Kevin Hayes to a 5-6 year deal in the mid $4M AAV range, even if they stop progressing you can probably convince another team that they need a change of scenery. And at the $1M per 10 points average that UFA’s tend to get in their contracts, you’re not far off. The issue is you’re paying that UFA price for some of their RFA years at the same time, so your cap situation plays a vital role in whether these types of bridge deals are good for the team or not.
Essentially, Phil’s argument is that you should overpay in the short-term to then underpay for a couple/few UFA years. Sometimes that’s smart, when you have the cap room or if you’re not really competitive now, but could be when those cheaper UFA years hit. It’s what the Rangers did with Ryan McDonagh when they signed him to a six-year, $4.7M AAV contract. But when you’re right up against the cap and you’re in win-now mode, you simply can’t do that. You need to kick the can because you need flexibility with your roster and that cap space you save over the course of a season, like the couple of million the Rangers had in available cap space to start the season, compounds by the time you reach the trade deadline. If nothing changes, the Rangers will be able to add $12.4M in salary according to CapFriendly to bolster their playoff run if it becomes advantageous to do so. We don’t know what teams may fall off and be willing to move expiring UFAs in April. What we do know is that the Rangers one potential area of weakness is among their top-4 defensemen. Brent Burns ($5.76M AAV) and Kevin Shattenkirk ($5.2M) are among the expiring defensive contracts this season. As it stands, the Rangers could afford the cap hit of both, although finding the assets to move for them would be a different discussion.
Deadline cap space aside, the Rangers, at the time J.T. Miller was re-signed, were up against the cap ceiling. They still hadn’t re-signed Chris Kreider ($4.625M AAV) or Kevin Hayes (2.6M AAV) both of whom were scheduled for arbitration hearings. They had also yet to sign UFA forwards Jimmy Vesey ($925K AAV) and Brandon Pirri ($1.1M AAV). Nor had they traded Derek Brassard ($5M AAV) for Mika Zibanejad ($2.625M AAV). The difference between Brassard’s contract and Zibanejad’s is $2.375M. That makes up just about every dollar the Rangers had to start the season under the Salary Cap. There was no way to know that trade or some other one to free up cap space would become available. There wasn’t a way to know the exact dollar amounts Kreider and Hayes would sign for. There was also no way of knowing who would earn a spot on the final roster. What we do know is that if the Rangers had committed another $2M or so to J.T. Miller at the time they re-signed him, they would have had to make roster decisions to start the season based on how much cap space they had available and not on who best fit in order to field a successful team. That cap flexibility along with the Zibanejad trade are the reason the Rangers can roll four lines that can all score. It’s also the reason that when the trade deadline arrives, they may be able to add valuable pieces for yet another legitimate attempt at a Stanley Cup winning run.
It is probably too early to look at next seasons’ cap allotments, but I do want to mention it. Next year Zibanejad, Brandon Pirri, Jesper Fast, Oscar Linberg, Josh Jooris and Adam Clendening are all RFAs who will need new contracts. Having Miller locked up next season at $2.75M rather than $4.5M will help there as well.
Miller is a good hockey player even if he’s unproven at the moment. In an ideal world, having him locked up for 5 or 6 years at a good cost would likely benefit the Rangers. Yet at the cost he would have likely come in at, the Rangers would have handcuffed themselves to a less effective roster than the one they have today, with little ability to improve it at the deadline should their level of play continue and should they aspire for a long spring.