Rangers' J.T. Miller trying to adapt to life as 20-year-old hockey pro

J.T. Miller of the Rangers, left, is congratulated J.T. Miller of the Rangers, left, is congratulated on his second goal of the game and career by Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal. (Feb. 7, 2013) Photo Credit: David Pokress

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Steve Zipay Newsday columnist Steve Zipay

Steve Zipay is an award-winning journalist who has covered events from Super Bowls to World Series and issues ...

The motto for East Palestine, Ohio, 50 miles from Pittsburgh and a Hail Mary from Joe Namath's hometown, Beaver Falls, Pa., is "A Little City With a Big Future." Sounds similar to a description of Jonathan Tanner Miller.

On Wednesday, in a cramped dressing area at the Iceplex, a public skating facility near Assiniboia Downs race track in Manitoba where the Winnipeg Jets practice, Miller, known as J.T., the lone rookie on the Rangers, didn't have a locker: He sat on a chair in the middle of the room, peeling off his uniform and skates.

It was his last day as a teenager; he turned 20 in a NHL uniform on Thursday. So it didn't matter where he sat: That's rarefied air for a kid from East Palestine (Pop. 4,721) who idolized Alex Kovalev and was looking forward to his first visit as a pro to the home of the Penguins.

"I can't tell you how many times I've been in that building," Miller said, then stopped, with an awkward grin on his face. "I mean the old one, the Igloo, not the one we'll be in."

By we, he not only meant his teammates -- Miller said 30 to 40 relatives and friends were in Consol Energy Center Saturday, where the Rangers lost, 3-0.

"I can't nearly describe how it was to see my family and friends who've supported me over the years in the stands," said Miller, who played 12:30 and had five hits was a minus-1. "It didn't turn out the way we wanted it. We've lost three games in a row, and we're not playing our best hockey right now. I wish I made a little more happen today."

Miller, who was drafted 15th overall in 2011 and was playing his 19th NHL game, wasn't in the front office's plans at all during the lockout. He was penciled in for the AHL's Connecticut Whale this season after playing for the U.S. team in the World Junior Championships. In that tournament, Miller scored two goals and nine points and the squad took home the gold medal.

On Feb. 7, two days after he was called up from the minors, he scored twice against the Islanders, including a power-play goal, and became the first Ranger to post a multi-goal game in his Madison Square Garden debut in more than 30 years. Chris Kontos did it on Jan. 3, 1983.

Although many figured he would return to the Whale after his fifth NHL game, the deadline for burning a year on his entry-level contract, coach John Tortorella kept him around. He's leveled off since, going eight straight games without a point. "He continues to try and make a difference, so he takes some chances," Tortorella said. "They don't always work out, but . . . "

With Brad Richards out of the lineup for two games, Miller centered the Rangers second line, but Tortorella prefers him at wing at this stage of his career.

"He's a young man, just turned 20 yesterday, who has done some really good things for us," Tortorella said. "He still has a lot to learn, as a 20-year-old should. He's been put in a spot playing on a third line and I've bounced him around. We think he needs to develop and we want to make sure we're not always putting him in spots that's going to hurt his development. He's a real interesting one as we continue to try to infuse our team with kids."

Trade winds

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With the trade deadline just 18 days away — on a night the Penguins visit the Rangers — scouts have been visible at every arena. Rangers birddogs have been in Columbus, possibly looking at C Derick Brassard (although he has a cap hit of $3.2 million next season) and other players in the Western Conference. . . Mike Ribiero, the unrestricted free agent center who has 28 points with Washington, will be a quality rental for someone . . . The Rangers are still considering signing Mats Zuccarello, whose KHL season is done, and don’t be surprised if Chris Kreider isn’t recalled from AHL Hartford soon.

Heard around

Thursday was the 50th anniversary of Marv Albert’s first Rangers radio broadcast on March 14, 1963, from the old Detroit Olympia, when Jim Gordon had a conflict. When his son, Kenny, reminded him, Marv texted: “It’s been a quick 50” and with typical Albert wit, recalled a poor location of the broadcast booth . . . John Davidson, who is now the president of hockey operations with the Blue Jackets, was in Pittsburgh, and was excited for two reasons: Having three first-round draft picks, and the shift to the Eastern Conference next season, which he said should increase radio and TV audiences in Columbus. All of their road games in the Western Conference are late broadcasts.

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