Rangers center J.T. Miller skates against the New Jersey Devils...

Rangers center J.T. Miller skates against the New Jersey Devils in the first period of an NHL hockey game at Madison Square Garden. (Dec. 7, 2013) Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

It appears that Miller Time has arrived for the Rangers. And the timing couldn't be better.

When the front office bought out the final six years of veteran Brad Richards' contract in June, the search for a replacement at center began in earnest.

Auditioning for the vacancy would be an assortment of youngsters and veterans with varying degrees of experience. But the front office hoped that 21-year-old Jonathan Tanner Miller, known as J.T., would take the next step after bouncing between the pros and the minors as a left wing. He has played for former coach John Tortorella and last season for Alain Vigneault.

With Derek Stepan sidelined 4-to-6 weeks with a broken left fibula, the stakes are even higher.

The Rangers knew they would have three centers in the fold: Stepan, the team's second-leading scorer last season; Derick Brassard, who agreed to a five-year, $25-million contract extension, and Dominic Moore, who excelled on the fourth line and as a penalty-killer during the Blueshirts' run to the Stanley Cup Final.

Miller, the 15th overall pick in the 2011 draft, who was told both privately and publicly last season that his "commitment" on and off the ice was a concern, seems responsible and focused.

"I put more into it this summer, so I'm hoping for a better outcome," said Miller, who is 6-1, 205 and faster than Richards, which should help this up-tempo squad.

In two preseason games, Miller has a goal and two assists and has won 58 percent of his faceoffs. At the moment, he is the favorite to assume Stepan's role in the short-term and eventually make the Rangers deeper among the top nine forwards.

Quality centers are among the most valuable assets in the NHL, and as such, are difficult to acquire in a league that increasingly requires depth down the middle to rise to the top.

The Cup champion Kings have Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter. The Penguins have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Bruins, who will again be vying for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, have David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron. The Ducks traded two players and two draft picks to add Vancouver's Ryan Kesler to Ryan Getzlaf in Anaheim.

With a tight budget and a tight offseason market, the Rangers gave a two-year deal to Matthew Lombardi, 32, who was the top scorer last season in the Swiss League, and reeled in Boston College's Kevin Hayes, a former No. 1 pick of Chicago who chose free agency. In their system, they also had Swede Oscar Lindberg, 22, who finished the season strong in Hartford -- he scored Friday against Chicago.

Vigneault wants to evaluate the 6-4 Hayes at wing, so it's possible that one of Lindberg, Lombardi and Chris Mueller will temporarily land the final center post while Stepan heals and another could be kept as a 13th forward. Right wing Jesper Fast also is competing for a spot.

But with his performance so far, Miller seems a lock to open the season with the Rangers.

Last fall, Miller, who grew up in East Palestine, Ohio, about an hour's drive from Pittsburgh, reported to camp a day before it opened. This year, he was working out at the Madison Square Garden training camp a month earlier and lamented his "unprofessional" approach last season.

Miller posted 42 points in 41 AHL games, but is aware that to stay in the NHL, he needs more consistency than his 3-3-6 in 30 games showed. He did have two assists in three playoff games, but an arm injury against Montreal kept him out of more.

After scoring a power play goal on a tip-in of John Moore's point shot in a 4-1 win in Chicago Friday, Miller told MSG Network that it was nice to score but, "I have areas to work on managing the puck. I was forcing a couple passes; the linemates made it easy for me tonight."

In the end though, only Miller will determine whether his time has really come.

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