Why the Rangers Were Wrong to Bridge J.T. Miller

Phil Kocher
@ me

Phil Kocher

Managing Editor & Cofounder at ClearedForContact.com
I believe in Nate Silver, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Christopher Hitchens, the Oxford comma, and the value of white space.
Phil Kocher
@ me

Quick, without looking, can you tell me who is leading the New York Rangers in scoring as of today? I’ll give you a hint – it isn’t Rick Nash, Mats Zuccarello, or even Jimmy Vesey despite his phenomenal early play. Believe it or not, the answer is J.T. Miller. The 23-year old fifth-year forward is sitting pretty at the top of the Rangers’ points column with twelve points in eleven games, horrendous mustache and all. And he’s doing this despite playing just 15:40 TOI/G, which is good for eighth among all Rangers forwards this season. Miller has outright dominated games this year and is a major contributing factor to the Rangers league-leading offense. They’re first in goals per game with 4.09 and first in goals-for at 5-on-5 with 30. So, how is it Miller is doing this in spite of the lack of “top-six” ice time, from the Rangers “third” line with Kevin Hayes and Michael Grabner? Partly because the Rangers have one of the deepest rosters in the NHL (thanks to players like him), and partly because of redefined depth roles in the era he is playing in. Long gone are the days when teams skated two “top-six” lines of scoring forwards, a third, predominantly “checking” line, and a fourth-line filled with barely passable “hockey players” whose talents resided primarily in their fists. Today’s NHL teams, like the Rangers, are dressed top-to-bottom with mostly interchangeable two-way players. This makes the Rangers’ “third” line only third in their line-up in a clinical sense. Colloquially they’re simply an extension of that interchangeable depth.

Fixing things that aren’t broken isn’t just a waste of time, it’s often counter-productive. While there’s certainly an argument to be made that increasing Miller’s ice time or even promoting him due to his surging play would be warranted, it’s not one you’ll see me make here. As far as I’m concerned, until further notice that trio should be left to do what they’re doing, which is playing with authority. The Rangers have out-scored their opponents (Lightning, Blues, and Oilers) in the last three games by a combined score of 16-4. The Grabner-Hayes-Miller line has contributed 18 points in those games alone. Miller himself has six points in that span. Believe it. Your eyes aren’t lying to you. The simple fact is every time that line is on the ice, something good is happening, and the data supports it. Hayes might quietly be the most important player on that line, but it’s Miller who is reaping the rewards that have carried him to the top of the points standings.

So why were the Rangers so wrong to sign him to a bridge contract instead of a long-term deal? Because he’d shown enough in his body of work as a professional heading into last summer to not kick the can down the road again. But kick they did anyway and the consequences will assuredly result in a less favorable AAV than they might have been able to negotiate had they trusted the data—particularly the advanced data—that was telling them the kind of player Miller would become. His first two seasons in the NHL were partial ones in which he played a combined 56 games at the NHL level. They were seasons in which he was shuffled between the Rangers and the Hartford Wolfpack but ones in which he still managed to average 0.15 points-per-game (P/GP) in 2012-13 and 0.20 in 2013-14 while with the Rangers. From 2014-15, when he established himself as a regular NHL player, to 2015-16, his P/GP averages have continued to increase incrementally from 0.40 to 0.52 in each season. Over that same 2014-2016 stretch in which he played the majority of his NHL games, according to Corsica.hockey, he had an aggregate 50.02 CF (Corsi-for) percentage and 50.43 FF (Fenwick-for) percentage. His P/60 (points per 60 minutes) of 2.01 trailed just behind Chris Kreider (2.12) – a then fourth-year player who the Rangers apparently did trust enough to sign to a long-term extension. Even Miller’s time in the AHL (101 games split between 2012-13 and 2014-15) showed him to be a prolific point-producer at that level as well. He was better than a point-per-game in his final two years there and has a league total of 81 points in 101 games played.

Perhaps fueled by salary cap fears given the dollars they expected to dedicate between Kreider, Miller, Hayes, and McIlrath—all of whom elected arbitration—the Rangers re-signed Miller to a two-year bridge deal worth $2.625M per season in early July. In the Rangers defense, at the time they were a team who needed to be frugal with their available cap room. According to Larry Brooks of the NY Post, the day Miller signed his deal the Rangers were left with approximately $9.95M in available salary cap space with which to re-sign the remaining RFAs. That $9.95M was also expected to be tapped into to sign Jimmy Vesey when he became a UFA on August 16th and was also used much later in August to sign Brandon Pirri. Miller’s signing also occurred four days before the Derick Brassard trade to Ottawa for Mika Zibanejad on July 18th that opened up around $2.4M more than they had the day Miller signed. However, Miller’s arbitration date had been set for August 2nd, which gave the Rangers plenty of runway. Runway they chose not to take advantage of.

That $2.625M number looks great today given Miller’s level of play and current point production, but it’s also one that will cost them when looking at the bigger picture if and when they are willing to sign him long-term. He has just one year of RFA eligibility left, which means anything more than a one-year deal once this contract expires requires the Rangers to begin buying UFA-eligible years – years that don’t come cheaply. This is a fact that an unnerving percentage of fans tend to forget and begrudgingly re-learn every summer beginning around July 1st.

One would think the Rangers would have learned their lesson given how recently they went through this exact same process with Derek Stepan. He was a player they could have or rather should have signed to a long-term extension earlier in his career when both he and defenseman Ryan McDonagh were up for renewals (and looking for identical contracts), but who the Rangers also opted to go the bridge route with instead. McDonagh, like Kreider, they appeared to trust. Stepan, like Miller, they apparently didn’t. Stepan did eventually sign a long-term 6-year/$39M deal with the Rangers (at the same contract position Miller will be in when this deal is up), but the road to doing so was paved with problems and his deal now more closely resembles one signed by an Unrestricted Free Agent rather than one that’s more strategically designed to trade off a team-friendly AAV for early guaranteed money and years.

It’s really not possible to project what the Rangers roster will look like by the time this becomes a front-burner issue for them, especially with the Las Vegas expansion draft looming next summer. Perhaps enough cap room can or will be cleared between now and then so that none of this matters. Perhaps the Rangers won’t mind signing Miller to a deal with an AAV that’s certain to begin at $5M per season. But perhaps, too, had they had a little more faith in the now-blossoming scoring forward, they wouldn’t need to.

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  1. Pingback: Even in Hindsight, Bridging J.T. Miller was the Smart Move – Cleared for Contact

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