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More mature J.T. Miller will compete for Rangers' No. 3 center spot

Rangers center J.T. Miller looks on against the

Rangers center J.T. Miller looks on against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second period of Game 3 of a second-round layoff hockey series at Madison Square Garden on Monday, May 5, 2014. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

With veteran center Brad Richards bought out and now a member of the Blackhawks, and the Rangers set on the first and second lines with centers Derek Stepan and Derick Brassard, a pivotal roster question is whether J.T. Miller can prove himself capable of centering a third line.

Miller, 21, appears focused on giving himself a real shot at the opening.

On Monday, Miller, who has been skating with teammates at the MSG Training center in Greenburgh for a month, said that he needed to be here sooner rather than later, which he was last September, arriving a day before training camp.

"I think I'm more ready to take on the pro aspect of the game," said Miller, a first-round draft pick (15th overall) in 2011, who is clearly in better shape than this time last season. Asked if he thought coming in sooner was a must, he said "absolutely." Which brings us to his equally important admission: "I'm probably a little bit more mature than last year."

Coaches were not always happy with Miller's level of consistency last season, when he was moved up and down from Hartford six times and was the subject of this blunt April assessment from coach Alain Vigneault.

"He just hasn't earned the right to be at this level on a regular basis," Vigneault said. "He needs to show more commitment on the ice and off. Until he does that, he hasn't earned the right . . . J.T. has to figure it out and hopefully he will. When he does, we're going to have a good player. If he doesn't, he will be a good minor-league player."

In 30 games last season, mostly as a left wing, he had three goals and six points. In 26 games during the previous season, he had two goals and four points.

Miller, who grew up in East Palestine, Ohio, an hour's drive from Pittsburgh, scored 15 goals and 43 points in 41 games with the Hartford Wolf Pack in 2013-14, which prompted those call-ups. Miller had two assists in the playoffs but injured his shoulder in the Eastern Conference final, and saw no more ice time. Miller said Monday the shoulder is completely healed.

Is Miller better suited for left wing, where the Rangers have numerous candidates, or center, where there are fewer competitors?

"I used to always say [center] wasn't my preference before I turned pro, but the last couple of year, I think it started to fit me better," he said. "I've got a lot to learn in the D-zone. Last year, I made some real strides but I have a ways to go when it comes to be well-rounded all around the rink. I'll work at both [spots] . . . for whatever options are available to me."

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