New York Rangers forward J.T. Miller became very familiar with the stretch of highway connecting New York and Hartford last season. In 2013-14, the 21-year-old was sent down to the Rangers' American Hockey League affiliate in Hartford six different times.
He performed well with the Wolf Pack, scoring 15 goals and 42 points in 41 games. But with a number of key forwards no longer on the Rangers roster, the first-round pick (No. 15) in the 2011 NHL Draft must show he can consistently provide offense in the NHL.
"I think we made it pretty clear to him when he left where he stands and the opportunity in front of him. You only get so many chances," Rangers assistant general manager Jeff Gorton said of Miller. "I think J.T. is a pretty proud guy and a confident kid. I think he's encouraged there's a chance for him in the lineup. We're all looking forward to how he comes back, but it's all up to him."
Last season the Rangers had a deep forward unit that helped them rank second in the NHL with 33.2 shots per game. Following a memorable run to the Stanley Cup Final, the Rangers quickly used a compliance buyout on veteran center Brad Richards before trading fourth-line wing Derek Dorsett to the Vancouver Canucks. From there, forwards Benoit Pouliot and Brian Boyle left in free agency to join the Edmonton Oilers and Tampa Bay Lightning, respectively.
That leaves plenty of holes up front, with Miller potentially being the beneficiary. But first he must convince the Rangers he's truly an NHL player.
"He just hasn't earned the right to be at this level on a regular basis," coach Alain Vigneault said of Miller in early April. "He needs to show more commitment on the ice and off. Until he does that, he hasn't earned the right."
Miller earned some playing time alongside Richards and wing Carl Hagelin in the opening-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers, and had two assists in two games. He was then rotated in and out of the lineup during the Stanley Cup Playoffs before injuring his shoulder in a goalmouth collision during the Eastern Conference Final against the Montreal Canadiens.
With Richards and Boyle gone, Miller has a prime opportunity to play at his natural center position. At the very least, he can earn a spot somewhere on the fourth line and refine his overall game while becoming more familiarized with Vigneault's system.
"If you want any success in this League, you need young players to eventually push guys and take jobs. J.T. is in that position, it's a huge summer for him," Gorton said. "The thing about J.T. is he can play all three forward positions. He's a big body, he's a heady player. I think there's a great opportunity in front of him here. We'll see how he comes back in training camp. He certainly has the talent and the size and the ability to be an NHL player. We'll see what he does with it."
Fortunately for Miller, there is a precedent for young Rangers forwards flourishing with the team. Hagelin, Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider all cut their teeth in the AHL before establishing themselves with the Rangers.
If Miller can take an example from anyone, it's Kreider. Like Miller, Kreider was a first-round pick who emerged with the Rangers before being sent back down to the AHL. Kreider blossomed last year in his first full NHL season with career highs of 17 goals, 20 assists and 37 points in 66 games. He also led the Rangers with a plus-14 rating before enjoying a strong postseason run with five goals and 13 points in 15 Stanley Cup Playoff games.
Miller represents a different skill set from Kreider, but he may never have a greater opportunity to begin his career with the Rangers. If he can find a way to contribute, New York can rekindle the great offensive depth it demonstrated last season and Miller can forget about any more long trips to Hartford.