Examining J.T. Miller’s Breakout Season

 

One of the Rangers providing a desperately needed breakout season is J.T. Miller. During my in-depth mid-season review, and my look at how the Rangers generate offense, the name that jumped out at me was J.T. Miller.

One of the concerns entering this season was the closing of the Rangers contending window and the importance of the youth to step up, and ease the burden on the veterans. While names like Kevin Hayes and Chris Kreider were expected to do so, it has been J.T. Miller who has helped the Rangers drive play over the last 4-6 weeks.

This is visible from Miller’s shot charts and his on-ice expected goal totals this season. While Miller is average at driving offense through individual play, he has shown a very strong ability to create offense through his passing ability whether through abusing the slot line or quick passes that disrupt a goalies ability to set with clear sight.

Considering the Rangers recent struggles to drive the play at even strength, Miller’s breakout season has been a godsend. The question is: What is responsible for his breakout?

Miller is just entering his offensive prime and has gained experience over the course of the last two seasons at the NHL level. The interesting aspect of his jump in his ability to create offensive opportunities is who he is creating offense with. It would be easy to assume that placing him alongside “better” players would allow him to be a more impactful player, but a look at his expected goal totals finds some interesting struggles alongside the Rangers best and brightest.

Miller’s production alongside Mats Zuccarello and Derrick Brassard has been underwhelming. Miller may not be ready to do the heavy lifting that is required from the top unit at this point, but he also may not be the proper complementary piece alongside two players in Zuccarello and Brassard whose biggest assets also happen to overlap with Miller.

Three left-hand shots who are most effective as setup men don’t necessarily complement each other in the manner that a coach would prefer. Chemistry isn’t just ability to read and react, it also requires the pieces to fit. Board play and playing off the puck are also required elements for a line to have success. This is visible when I looked at Miller’s rolling expected goal total differentials.

If we look at Miller’s struggles and successes, his best work has been done with Kreider, who has the ability to compliment him through individual goal creation as well as somebody who finds open space for opportunities. Derek Stepan is not a facilitator and is also somebody who can handle tough minutes from the opposition. These three together have managed close to a 70% expected goal total differential while playing together. That is a dominant number on a team that fights to win the territorial advantage. It lies in stark contrast to the 35% differential that Miller has produced with Brassard and Zuccarello as linemates.

Miller has also seen a lot of success with Oscar Lindberg, a player who has shown a strength in finding open space for someone like Miller to exploit through his precision passing.

Because of all of the linemates that Miller has found himself bouncing around with this season, these numbers are all vulnerable to small sample inaccuracy. But when paired with other information, I think we can find reasonable explanations for his results and optimism for Miller being able to continue to thrive as a Top-6 forward if Alain Vigneault places him in a position to succeed among players who compliment his strengths.