Trite as the metaphor may be, few situations are more entitled to be described as a “whale” of a transition than that of New York Rangers prospect J.T. Miller.
The No. 15 overall pick in the 2011 NHL entry draft, Miller is still less than a year removed from his final Ontario Hockey League season with the Plymouth Whalers and is now a mainstay with the Connecticut Whale, the Blueshirts’ top affiliate.
Were it not for a lengthy working sabbatical abroad with the U.S. World Junior Championship team, he could be among the Whale’s top three, four or five point-getters with that production pace. Nonetheless, his first impression in the professional ranks has proven sufficient for a spot on the AHL’s Eastern Conference All-Star squad.
Miller’s late addition to the midseason showcase was announced this past Thursday as sprinklings of the original rosters were summoned to their NHL parent clubs.
“I wasn’t really expecting it, especially after the first list of guys that came out,” Miller said before Sunday night’s skills competition at the Dunkin' Donuts Center.
“But just to be here amongst this group of guys is pretty special.”
That may not quite compare to Ken Morrow jumping straight from the Miracle on Ice to the New York Islanders on the cusp of the birth of their Stanley Cup dynasty. But it would be all but futile for Miller to try to recall another calendar month quite as momentous for him as January 2013.
“No, not really,” he said when the challenge was posed. “I guess it is kind of a big (month) for me.
“It’s nice to win a gold medal. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for the last couple of years now.”
The World Junior tournament, in which he logged two goals and a team-best seven assists for the Americans, was a storybook conclusion to a slight extension on Miller’s amateur career. But it was preceded by an altogether irreproachable start to his first full professional campaign.
While the AHL was laden with would-be NHL shoo-ins for two-plus months during the lockout, Miller began his first regular season in Connecticut with three assists in as many games. By the time he took leave with Team USA in mid-December, he had a 5-9-14 scoring log in 26 games, including a 3-3-6 run in his last seven.
The transition in October and re-transition this month after the WJC has not been without some adjustments. Miller mentioned that, whereas he was a winger in Plymouth, he has been a center for the Whale.
That, in tandem with being a teen among men (he does not turn 20 until March 13), can explain his team-low minus-nine rating.
“I have to learn how to play down low a little better,” he said. “Be more responsible down there and learn how to play defense before offense. I think when that goes well I can play a little better on the offensive end, too.”
That is nothing short of an enticing prospect for the Whale and their parent club. Once Miller harnesses those two-way responsibilities and elevates his productivity rate, he should be a candidate to add another dose of depth to a confirmed Stanley Cup contender.
The year after they drafted Miller, the Rangers rose from eighth to first place in the NHL’s Eastern Conference. A relative modicum of offense was recompensed by the goaltending of Henrik Lundqvist and laser-beamed defense through two seven-game playoff series before New York ran out of gas in Game 6 of the conference championship.
How soon Miller will work into the Rangers’ plans is yet to be determined. But his co-piloting role in the WJC gold-medal run and inclusion in North America’s second-best best-of-the-best exhibition have nailed his pegs on the radar.
Approaching the homestretch of the AHL season, Miller is poised to build on his foundation and solidify his bridge from Hartford to Manhattan.
“(The Rangers) have such a high reputation for what they expect, a lot of excellence and good performance in the way they play and that’s the way they train us in Connecticut,” he said. “They’re preparing us for the next step really well.”
Al Daniel is an NHL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes for this story were obtained firsthand.