Thursday’s game against the Islanders will be a significant one for the Rangers organization, and not just for the opportunity to string together their fourth straight win.
The rivalry match will mark Rangers prospect J.T. Miller’s fifth NHL game, after which the club must make an important decision: whether to keep the 19-year-old center up with the big club or send him back to the team’s AHL affiliate to save a year of eligibility on his contract.
If Miller plays a sixth NHL game, that would trigger the first year of his entry-level deal.
“It’s something we’ll continue to talk about,” coach John Tortorella said after an optional practice Wednesday. “That’s all I can give you.”
Whether the Rangers are close to a decision -- or have made one already -- they are not revealing their hand just yet. What we do know is that the team likes what they see in the young, physical forward.
“He’s strong underneath the hash marks, both offensively and defensively. He has a ton to learn defensively but I like his willingness, I do,” Tortorella said. “I like his willingness to get to pucks and stay strong on pucks -- that’s a big part of our game we’re working on and concentrating on.”
In his NHL debut against the Devils last Tuesday, Miller was arguably the team’s most dynamic forward on the ice. In his first game at the Garden just two days later, Miller tallied twice to help the team knock off the Islanders on home ice.
But Tuesday’s performance in the team’s 4-3 shootout victory over the Bruins was not his finest.
“He’s a 19-year-old kid, playing center-ice -- a lot of reads down low, a lot of defensive responsibilities. He’s going to have some bumps,” Tortorella said. “I sill think he had some shifts where he was strong on the puck and did some good things there.”
“Was it one of his better games since he’s been here? “No, but we’ll see where it goes.”
One of the Rangers’ strongest assets is its organizational depth. In addition to Miller, a first-round pick (15th overall) in the 2011 draft, the club has gotten significant contributions from other top prospects such as Carl Hagelin and Chris Kreider. Both players played key roles as rookies in helping the team along to the Eastern Conference finals.
Whether Miller will have a similar impact -- at least this season -- remains to be seen.
“We think he’s going to be a really good player,” Tortorella said. “We’re just not sure how quickly it’s going to come. Our situation as an organization is to watch that.”
Miller stressed that he won’t approach Thursday’s game any differently despite the implications. He’ll do what he can to further his case and hope the decision falls in his favor.
“I’m not worried about that. I can only worry about things I can control, and that’s me going out and playing the way I know,” Miller said. “Whatever happens, happens after that.”