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K'Andre Miller, Zac Jones Open Eyes at World Junior Summer Showcase

Defensemen Miller (2018 selection) and Jones (2019 selection) excel for Team USA at annual summer tournament

by Jess Isner

PLYMOUTH, MICH. - One is embarking on his second summer tour with the U.S. World Juniors National Team. The other is in the midst of his first go-round, with plenty still to prove and a dogged determination to do just that. 

Both prospects, aside from being defensemen drafted one year apart by the New York Rangers, have at least one other thing in common: They're never satisfied. 

"I always try to set my standards very high, and I'm not very satisfied with a lot of things," said Rangers 2018 first-round draft pick K'Andre Miller at this past weekend's World Junior Summer Showcase in Plymouth, Mich. "I just go into every game knowing that you've got to prove something every game. There's always people watching and always pressure on you, just from that perspective." 

For the last two years, Miller - a 19-year-old, 6-foot-4 defenseman - has proven plenty. He has proven he can make the transition from forward to defense a mere two years before his NHL draft and still establish himself as a consensus first-round selection. Following his freshman campaign at the University of Wisconsin, he proved himself to be an NCAA All-Rookie team selection despite being limited to 22 games due to injury. This summer, as a member of Team USA, he has proven himself to be a leader and a resource on and off the ice. 

Of course, none of this comes as a surprise to New York's scouting staff. 

"K'Andre has really improved from the point when we drafted him," said Rangers Director of Pro Scouting Kevin Maxwell. "He's got all the tools that you want in a defenseman. He can skate, he can think, and he's got power to his game. As far as the leadership goes, he's a real likable kid, and the kids gravitate to him. He just he has this attitude about him that people just want to be around him." 

It's not every day that you establish yourself as a voice in the dressing room as a college freshman. But Miller isn't your every-day player. 

"You don't see many freshmen that go in and become a leader like he was," said Rangers Amateur Scout Larry Bernard. "This year it's going to be expected of him even more, on the ice and off the ice." 

Miller knows there will be more expected of him when he heads back to Madison to begin his sophomore season. He sees this summer as his first opportunity to hone in on those leadership qualities that, as he ascends the ranks of amateur hockey, have become instrumental to rounding out his game. 

"I'm just trying to play my game, play smart, play with confidence," Miller said. "I'm going into games knowing that I've been through it last year. I'm trying to take on more of that leadership role and show what I can do." 

As a 2019 Rangers draft pick, defenseman Zac Jones - also a member of Team USA at this year's Summer Showcase - gravitated to Miller, both in Plymouth and at New York's development camp in June. 

"He's an awesome player, and getting to know him a little more - he seems like a really good guy," Jones said. "I've watched him in development camp, I've watched him here - it's just it's fun to watch him play." 

Jones, a third-round pick in the 2019 Draft, has been fun for the Rangers brass to watch as well. 

"For a defenseman that size, you have to be very smart, and we think he is," Bernard said. "We think he's got good puck skills and he's got an attitude to him and his game that just allows him to play at that size, and that's why we picked him. He just has that vision and that ability to not panic under pressure." 

Jones' emergence has been a pleasure to watch for Rangers Director of North American Scouting Chris Morehouse, albeit a bit of an unexpected one. 

"I think you just look at his poise and his confidence with the puck - he played high school hockey two years ago. He only has one year of USHL experience. He comes in here and he's looked great," Morehouse said. "I think it's a credit to his mental makeup, his hockey sense - all those things you want. He has that special poise and dynamic ability. I think for him, you just love the upside." 

The 18-year-old blueliner has spent much of his summer getting acquainted with his new home at UMass-Amherst, taking a summer class and working out and skating with his new teammates four days a week.

"The biggest thing I've tried to work on for sure is my defensive game," Jones said. "My first year [at school], I'm just trying to come in and play my game - not really worry about too much minus playing hockey. Just school and playing hockey - that's all I'm trying to focus on, and then whatever happens after that, happens."

When the Rangers were making their selection in the third round of this year's draft, they obviously saw something they liked in Jones. They saw his poise and his confidence, his commitment to excelling as he advanced from high school hockey to USHL hockey to the World Junior team to, this coming season, NCAA hockey. 

In the next 12 months, they expect to see that progression continue. 

"I think he's gotten better and better every game he's played, and he seems to be able to adapt at this level," Bernard said. "And that's a good sign because as you get older, you have to be able to adapt when you move up the chain. It'll be interesting to see how he does at the beginning of this year in college because the door is open for him to play to his strengths as a power play guy." 

In a little less than a year, Jones will have a full season of Hockey East competition under his belt, playing against some of the best players college hockey has to offer. If selected to the U.S. team in December, he will have played in World Juniors for the first time.

Four years ago, after he had completed his freshman year at the South Kent School in Virginia, it was hard for Jones to see all of this coming - World Juniors, the draft. But now that he's here, he won't stop working. Now, he has new dreams, and he won't stop until he's achieved them. 

"Just this past year, I think [I've been] trying to play with confidence - that's the biggest thing," Jones said. "Thinking to myself, I deserve to be at these places, deserve to be playing in all these events and stuff like that - that's definitely the biggest thing for me.

"Four years ago, I wouldn't ever have expected that all this would happen. Even last year at this time, I would not have expected everything that happened this past year. I mean, it just goes to show - work hard and anything can happen."

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