On February 26, the day of the NHL trade deadline, J.T. Miller boarded a flight with his Rangers teammates, heading to Vancouver for the Rangers’ game against the Canucks two days later. The deadline would come while the plane was in the air, but at takeoff, Miller was still a Ranger.
During the flight, he was informed that he had been been traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning, along with captain Ryan McDonagh, to the Lightning in exchange for forward Vladislav Namestnikov, junior prospect Libor Hajek, and a first-round pick.
For Miller, who was benched a few times by Alain Vigneault and recently admitted that him and the former Rangers coach weren’t always a good fit together, the trade to the Lightning has been a rebirth for the 25-year-old center.
In 19 games with the Lightning, Miller had almost as many goals (10) as he did in 63 games with the Rangers (13). He is playing for one of the teams on the short list of legitimate top contenders to win a Stanley Cup, but he’s been plugged into the third spot of one of the best lines in hockey, with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov.
On Saturday, the Lightning advanced to the second round of the playoffs by closing out the Devils, 3-1, in Game 5. Although he didn’t get a point, Miller played a vital role in the goal by Kucherov that made it 2-0, standing in front of the crease and screening goaltender Cory Schneider.
Miller has provided the Lightning with some grit they didn’t have before, and in the playoffs, he’s contributed a goal and three assists, while winning 29 of 52 faceoffs (56 percent). So if Kucherov (5-5-10) and Stamkos (1-5-6) have been doing most of the heavy lifting for Tampa Bay, Miller is more than carrying his weight.
“He contributes offensively, wins faceoffs for you and is a complement,’’ Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said of Miller. “He doesn’t play the same way Stamkos and Kuch play, but he’s a complement to those guys. He can retrieve pucks; he’s got big-time skill for a big man, so he’s just not the guy going to the hard areas all the time; he can make plays.
“He’s been a good fit with those guys.’’
“I get them the puck when they’re open,’’ Miller said when asked to describe his role playing with Stamkos and Kucherov. “I think [I have to] be physical, get the puck back for them, and let them do their thing and go to the net.
“Obviously, when I get a chance to make a play, or shoot the puck, I’ve got to do it,’’ he continued. “One thing they keep telling me is to play my game, and that’s been really helpful, because it could be really easy to just want to give them the puck all the time. But I try to play my game; get it in, make a play when I get a chance, but get my butt to the net so they can make their plays.’’
McDonagh, asked to describe the difference between Miller now and with the Rangers, said Miller is getting more opportunities playing with Stamkos and Kucherov.
“He knows he’s on that line to be physical and to go in and get the forecheck started for those guys and when he’s on his game doing that, that’s when that line is effective,’’ McDonagh said.
Miller was asked if he ever takes a minute to thank his lucky stars that he was traded from the Rangers, who were likely not going to make the playoffs even before they stripped their roster down at the trade deadline, to the Lightning, who are going for it all.
“Yeah, absolutely,’’ he said. “But we don’t have time to worry about that right now. These are big games we’re a part of, and we’ve got to win. I’m super fortunate, but at the same time, you’ve got to play, and you’ve got to play well.
“So you don’t want to sit back and think how lucky I am,’’ he said. “I mean, it’s a great situation, and I’m happy to be here. But at the same time, now I’m here to win, and I think our whole team is on the same page with that.’’