Don’t sleep on J.T. Miller’s potential playoff impact

Lightning center J.T. Miller (10) celebrates his goal with defenseman Anton Stralman against the Panthers at Amalie Arena. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times ]
Lightning center J.T. Miller (10) celebrates his goal with defenseman Anton Stralman against the Panthers at Amalie Arena. [DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published March 12 2018
Updated March 12 2018

TAMPA — Defenseman Ryan McDonagh was the headliner in the Feb. 26 blockbuster with the Rangers, the highly-coveted top-four defenseman the Lightning badly needed.

But it has been the other Ranger acquired — forward J.T. Miller — who has made the biggest splash.

Miller, 24, has six points in his first six games with the Lightning (two goals). He earned a spot on the top line with stars Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov late in Saturday's game and in Monday's practice. And Miller has quickly earned coaches' trust, logging 17 or more minutes in all but one game. He's taking key draws, playing at crunch time.

What the Lightning believes is that Miller, at 6-foot-1, 218 pounds, brings the kind of size, versatility and faceoff prowess (54 percent) that could loom large in a playoff run.

"He's just an element of what we've been searching for a number of years now," coach Jon Cooper said. "To give up (Vladislav Namestnikov), a really good skill player, that stings. But in return you're getting a heavy body that does those little things, winning puck battles on the wall, going to the net hard.

"Those are the things you're going to need, especially if you're going to make the playoffs and you're hoping to go on a long run. You need guys that are going to be durable during that long run and he's proven to be that."

Miller, a 2011 first-round pick of the Rangers (12 picks before Namestnikov went to Tampa Bay), had an up-and-down tenure in New York. Miller spent 101 games in the AHL in his first three seasons as the Rangers wanted him to hone his two-way game.

But Miller, who is on pace for his third straight 20-goal season (has 15 now), has been reinvigorated from a fresh start in Tampa Bay. The fact that he's played for Cooper before, both in an AHL All-Star Game and the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, helps. So does the fact there are four other former Rangers in the room.

And they all know what Miller is capable of. Former Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi thinks Miller is coming into his own, finding that consistent game.

"He plays the game the right way," Girardi said. "He plays a heavy game, makes some plays. He'll make the right decision at the right time. He has a little bit of playoff experience as well."

Miller uses his size well, with the perfect example his assist on Brayden Point's goal in Dallas March 1. Miller went hard on the forecheck, winning a puck battle behind the net before feeding Point in front. In the same game, Miller flashed his skill, making a stellar stretch pass from his own end to free Steven Stamkos for a breakaway goal. Miller goes to the dirty areas, with Cooper using the example of Miller crashing the crease for a rebound goal March 10 against the Flyers.

"He's got the skill to make plays," said McDonagh, who made his Lightning debut Saturday after dealing with an upper body injury. "He can finish around the net, make passes to set up guys. He's got a big shot too, and likes to use that. He's just got really good hockey sense on when is the chance to make a play and when is it time to make a high-percentage play and not turn the puck over."

Miller said the initial shock of the trade has subsided. He's settled into an apartment with his wife, Natalie, who is expecting their first child (a girl) in April.

The baby will come during playoff time, which is where Miller might shine brightest. And Miller is thrilled to have this chance after leaving the rebuilding Rangers.

"I think a fresh start anywhere is always a good thing," Miller said. "It's new to me. This year was tough on a lot of (Rangers) players. We're not used to having more of a losing culture there. We were a winning team for a long time. This year was different for sure. It's hard to handle for a lot of people; sometimes it brings out the worst in people. But I'm super excited to be part of this team."


The Lightning is hosting a "go green" night for Tuesday's home game against Ottawa; fans are encouraged to ride bikes to Amalie Arena the next few weeks, with cyclists entered into a raffle to win a free custom Lightning beach cruiser at the end of the next five games. To be eligible, take a photo at the bike valet and post it on social media with hashtag #BiketotheBolts.

Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] [email protected]_JSmith.