Last season one could see a growing maturity in Rangers forward J.T. Miller, both professionally and personally. As a result he gained the trust of Alain Vigneault and the rest of the coaching staff, and emerged as a regular in the team's lineup for much of the regular season and throughout the playoffs.
And in a sign of his growing maturity, Miller recently told BlueshirtsUnited.com that he spent much of his summer thinking about being held off the score sheet in the Rangers Game Seven shutout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final rather than revel in the memory of his four-point tour-de-force against the Lightning in Game Six of that very same series.
"I was more concerned with that Game Seven than what I did in Game Six," offered Miller after skating in an informal on-ice workout with his teammates at the MSG Training Center last Friday. "There were some big plays made in Game Six, sure, and it gave us a chance to play a Game Seven, but I wished I could have stepped up more on a bigger stage. For me, I just wish I could have stepped up and done something better in that Game Seven and helped us reach the (Stanley Cup) Final again."
The thing is, Miller did step up in a big way, in both of those hugely important games, and really throughout the first extended playoff run of his career last spring. After largely watching the Rangers run to the Cup Final in 2014--he appeared in four games, picking up a pair of assists--Miller played in all 19 post-season contests in 2015, totaling eight points while also playing a punishing physical style.
The more opportunity Miller received in the playoffs, the more he came through for the Rangers. He began the post-season skating on a fourth line with Tanner Glass and the since-departed James Sheppard, but finished it alongside Rick Nash and Derick Brassard following an injury to Mats Zuccarello and the scoring struggles of Martin St. Louis.
With the Blueshirts facing playoff elimination down in Tampa, Miller scored a goal and assisted on three others in Game Six of the conference final, a 7-3 Rangers victory. Then in the seventh and deciding contest back at Madison Square Garden, Miller logged nearly 22 minutes of ice-time--second only to Nash among the team's forwards--and played an extremely effective game, tying for the game-high with five hits and winning eight of ten faceoffs.
"One thing I learned from playing in the playoffs is you have to have amnesia, you have to go out there, forget what happened before and be prepared at all times because the games go so quick, the series go so quick," explained Miller. "If you lose one game or have a bad game you can't let it come into your game next time out. That's something I've been trying to work on the past few years, but mainly in the playoffs. It was a big lesson for me."
Miller, the Rangers first round selection in the 2011 NHL Draft, is now 22 years old. His first taste of the NHL came as a 19 year-old in 2012-13, and he has bounced between the Rangers and the team's minor league affiliate in Hartford for three years. His goal this year is to stick with the big club all season long.
A slow starter in training camp so far in his career, Miller is seeking to play better right out of the gate this fall, another goal of his for 2015-16.
"I want a better start to my season," stated Miller, who appeared in a career-high 58 games last year while scoring ten goals and producing 23 points. "The last couple of years I only made it a couple games or two or three and then I was up and down. Obviously the situation is a bit different this year, but I still want to have a better start and not take anything for granted."
Miller is quite aware of the opportunities ahead of him this season. With St. Louis having retired and Carl Hagelin traded to Anaheim, there are some important roles to be filled among the Rangers top nine forwards. With Miller's career on the upswing, and coming off the solid post-season last spring, he will be watched closely throughout camp by Vigneault.
"I can't get distracted by it, but I see the opportunities out there with what's going on throughout the team," admitted Miller. "I will just try and play my best in whatever roles I am asked. It's about doing whatever I can to benefit the team. I can play a lot of different roles, and think I have shown more maturity in my game, but still have a lot to learn."
Miller's latest journey begins when he and his teammates open up training camp later this week.
Never has he seemed more ready for the opportunities ahead of him.