New York Rangers Prospects Central

Miller possesses across-the-board skills

Rangers' 2011 first-round pick has long history of standing out on the ice

Monday, 08.08.2011 / 11:30 PM / Prospects Central
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Miller possesses across-the-board skills
J.T. Miller DAY 20
J.T. Miller (F)
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By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com

Sometimes you find crazy coincidences in the hockey world. Consider this one, for example:

Just over two months ago, on June 24, the Rangers drafted 18-year-old forward J.T. Miller in the first round of NHL Entry Draft. Miller was drafted at No. 15 overall. The last time the Rangers had picked a player at No. 15 overall in the draft was 20 years earlier, when 18-year-old forward Alexei Kovalev joined the organization.

Now here's the crazy part of this coincidence: When Miller was a small boy in northeastern Ohio, his hockey idol was Kovalev.

Miller was only 5 years old when Kovalev joined the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1998. Over the next five seasons, while Miller was developing his skills in youth hockey leagues, Kovalev was winning his heart as a fan. Pittsburgh was only a short distance from Miller's hometown of East Palestine, Ohio, so young J.T. was able to watch his favorite player and team both in person and on television.

"He (Kovalev) was playing for the Penguins at the time, so it was really easy for me to like him," said Miller. "I watched him the most. He was really skilled, and it made me want to watch him. I was little, and I thought all that mattered was skill and all the fancy stuff you could do. He was somebody I really looked up to as a kid."

Those were five important years for Miller, who rapidly emerged as a very special player. Like many future professionals, he quickly distanced himself from other kids his age in terms of natural talent and was familiar to everyone in the relatively small youth hockey community around Youngstown, Ohio. Because of his skills, size, and athleticism, Miller was routinely given an opportunity to compete against boys much older than him, and he tended to be the best player on the ice.

Just a couple of days after the Rangers selected him in the first round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, J.T. Miller was at the MSG Training Center taking part in his first Rangers Prospect Development Camp.
"I scored a lot goals when I was really little," Miller said. "It just came very easy for me and I was kind of better than everybody else when I was 6, 7, and 8 years old. And then the hitting came in when I was 11 or 12, and I loved hitting. I liked the physical part of the game. So I just kind of put those two together and have become more of a complete player."

Now 6-foot-1 and 189 pounds, Miller is a natural athlete who could have excelled in any number of sports. He also played baseball, football, and golf throughout his childhood, and were it not for another fortunate coincidence, he might never have taken up his sport of choice.

Nobody in Miller's family had ever played hockey, but his father was an avid sports fan got caught up in the excitement surrounding the Penguins' run to Stanley Cup championships in 1991 and 1992. By the time his son Jonathan was born on March 14, 1993, Dennis Miller was already a hockey fanatic -- rooting for the Penguins in their quest for a third straight Cup that spring.

"Once he saw the Penguins win the Stanley Cup, he started paying attention and he fell in love with hockey," Miller said of his father. "If they hadn't won those two Cups, I don't really know what sport I would be playing."

Jonathan, who would come to be known as J.T., was destined to play hockey because of his father's growing passion for the game. His mother also supported the idea, and the Millers put their son on skates at the earliest possible age. J.T.'s natural athleticism soon took over, and he was on his way to what has already been a remarkable amateur career.

By the time he was a teen-ager, Miller was a rising star in the Pittsburgh Hornets organization and already traveling all over the country for games and tournaments. At age 15, he made the Hornets' Midget Major team even though he was three years younger than the other players on the squad. He also was invited to the 2008 USA Hockey Select 15 Player Development Camp in St. Cloud, Minn., and his participation in that event, as well as other USA Hockey Festivals, put him on the Rangers' radar from an early age.

Mike Barnett, the Senior Advisor to Rangers President and General Manager Glen Sather and team's Director of U.S. Amateur Scouting, kept an eye on Miller along with the Rangers' Michigan-based Amateur Scout, Larry Bernard.

"At age 15, he was curling and dragging the puck and scoring goals, so he wasn't anybody that people didn't know about," said Gordie Clark, the Rangers Director, Player Personnel. "Larry Bernard and Mike Barnett had seen the festival for 16-year-olds, and they also watched him a lot as an underage player before his draft year."

Miller drew notice at the highest levels of USA Hockey, whose leaders were envisioning him as a big part of the country's international hockey future. While he was playing in Pittsburgh, Miller was scouted by former Yale University and 1994 U.S. Olympic hockey head coach Tim Taylor, who now oversees the selection of players for the U.S. National Team Development Program based in Ann Arbor, Mich.

J.T. Miller was all smiles after being selected by the Rangers at No. 15 in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft's first round. Miller's ranking among the draft scouting services jumped after he led gold-medalist Team USA in scoring at the World Under-18 tournament.
"That program has been tremendous," Clark said of the NTDP. "It really started with the group that included Patrick Kane and James Van Riemsdyk. I think a lot of other kids growing up saw what they could do and started wanting to go there. Tim Taylor has a great hockey mind, and is out there full-time looking at these guys. Not all the kids want to leave their prep school or leave their families, but the group of kids that they have brought together in the past four or five years has been so competitive and skilled that they basically look like a team that plays the way Canada used to play. They hit, they move the puck, and they skate."

Midway through the 2008-09 season that saw a 15-year-old Miller score 21 goals and 42 points in 45 games of Midget Major hockey, he was offered him a spot on the U.S. Under-17 team for the 2009-10 season.

By leaving home, Miller would have a chance to skate alongside some of the nation's top players and represent Team USA at major international tournaments, including the World 2010 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge and the 2011 World Under-18 Championships.

Joining the NTDP also put him in line to one day represent his country in the World Junior Championship tournament. He is currently participating in the 2011 USA Hockey National Junior Evaluation Camp at Lake Placid, N.Y., and is a strong candidate to make the 2012 U.S. World Junior team.

Moving to Ann Arbor in 2009 certainly paid off, but it was a difficult thing for any 16-year-old to do.

"It was pretty tough the first year leaving everybody back home and going through all the stuff we had to go through that is really tough," said Miller. "I wasn't really used to working as hard as they do up there, that's for sure. The 18-year-old year was a little easier."

He had company from Pittsburgh in the program, as he was joined there by two fellow Hornets in goaltender John Gibson and forward Brandon Saad. All three were drafted by NHL teams in June -- a sure sign that the Penguins' glory years of the early 1990s had a major impact on the local hockey scene.

Miller performed well for the U.S. Under-17 team in 2009-10, scoring 31 points in 46 games and helping the squad finish first at the World Under-17 tournament. This past season he took it up a notch in his 48 games with the Under-18 squad, ranking third on the team with 37 points and second with 26 assists.

Miller was already a top prospect for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, but his stock went through the roof in April at the 2011 World Under-18 Championship tournament in Crimmitschau, Germany, because he was the top scorer on a U.S. team that went a perfect 6-0-0 in winning gold.

With four goals and nine assists for 13 points in six games, Miller finished atop Team USA and third overall in the tournament scoring race. He was also an impressive plus-8 over the six games -- making an impact at both ends of the ice. His remarkable run in Germany featured a six-game point streak, five straight multi-point games to end the tournament, and back-to-back three-point games.

Interviewed at his first Prospect Development Camp, J.T. Miller said he was highly impressed by the commitment to conditioning that all of the Rangers hopeful at the camp had exhibited in their careers.
In Team USA's opening 2-1 victory over Switzerland, Miller got off to a fast start with the primary assist on the game-winner at 5:09 of the third period. The following night, he had two power-play assists in an 8-1 win over the Slovaks before erupting for two goals in a dramatic 4-3 win over Russia on April 17.

Miller earned the team's Best Player Award for his play against the Russians, including a power-play tally at 11:02 of the first period and a goal that stretched the lead to 3-1  at 6:22 of the second. That goal came only 78 seconds after Russia had cut the USA lead to 2-1 and appeared to be threatening the U.S. medal hopes.

In the last preliminary-round game, a 7-3 rout of host Germany, Miller scored the first goal just 62 seconds into the opening period and later added two assists. He remained red-hot in the semifinal round, posting another three points in Team USA's 5-4 overtime win vs. Canada. Miller tied the Canadians 1-1 with a goal at 11:14 of the first period. He then assisted on a goal at 16:10 of the second for a 2-1 lead, and got another assist on a shorthanded tally at 7:16 of the third to make it 4-1.

He capped off his unforgettable tournament with two assists in the gold-medal game -- a 4-3 overtime win against Sweden that saw the Americans rebound from a 3-1 deficit. Miller helped spark the comeback at 1:20 of the third period, assisting on a goal that cut the lead to 3-2. Then, with only 1:29 left in regulation time, he set up the goal that forced OT.

By the end of the World Under-18s, scouts were buzzing about Miller. The Red Line Report scouting newsletter showed its faith in him by pushing his final pre-draft ranking all the way up to No. 9, and the International Scouting Service wasn't far behind with a No. 17 ranking on its list. Given this rise in the rankings, the Rangers were thrilled he was still available when they made their first-round pick.

"The No. 1 thing is his hockey sense, but when we were trying to rate all the different (draft-eligible) players, we look at so many different categories, and he gets checks in all of those departments," said Clark. "There were some better goal-scorers available, but they had other flaws in their game. And there were faster guys, but they didn't have a lot of those other qualities. He literally had more of the qualities in his game that we wanted."

After the draft, Miller paid his first visit to the MSG Training Center in late June for the 2011 Prospect Development Camp. It was an important eye-opener, particularly in terms the off-ice work that the pro game requires.

"I'm most impressed with how fit everybody is. Everybody is almost a pro-style hockey player by now, and that's just something I need to catch up to," said Miller. "You've just got to work hard and be in good shape. You've got to work hard off the ice. You've got to be strong and quick and fast. You've just got to keep pushing for it and you've got to be able to compete every shift and all the time."

In the months before he was drafted, Miller was thinking about his next step after the Under-18 team. Although he had been offered a scholarship to attend the University of North Dakota, he had the option of entering major-junior hockey with the Plymouth Whalers, who selected him in the 2009 Ontario Hockey League Draft.

In mid-July, Miller came to a decision and opted to join Plymouth for the 2010-11 season. Like fellow Ranger prospect Ryan Bourque, who went the major-junior route after he was drafted off the U.S. Under-18 team roster two years ago, Miller decided to prep for the NHL in a league where he would be able to play far more games.

"Plymouth is one of the top junior programs every year, and they are going to be really good next year," said Clark. "... But J.T. is the type of player that would play well anywhere because he's got such great hockey sense. I think hockey sense is the biggest thing that allows a player to be successful in any situation."

Despite his youth, Miller is very focused on his own development. He has a keen awareness of where his game is now and where he would like it to be.

"My strengths are using my speed to my advantage, and using the boards and protecting the puck and being physical and making plays," he said. "I think right now the weaker part of my game might be my ability to pay attention to detail and focus on my job and making sure I don't get run around too much. That's one thing I will work on."

On July 28, Miller and the Rangers agreed to terms on his first NHL contract. He will be part of the Blueshirts team that goes to Traverse City, Mich., for next month's Traverse City Prospects Tournament, airing on MSG. He will also likely skate with Rangers veterans during training camp at the MSG Training Center after his return from Michigan.

In any case, the journey toward the NHL has begun for Miller two decades after it began for his childhood hero Kovalev. There is no way to know exactly when he will arrive at The Garden, but given his progress to date, there's every likelihood the Garden Faithful can prepare to sound their inevitable in-arena chant of "J.T, J.T."

Hearing that chant at MSG would stir fond memories for Rangers fans. Chalk that up to just another crazy hockey coincidence.




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