By Sean Hartnett
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Last April, Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault sent a clear message to promising, yet inconsistent 21-year-old forward J.T. Miller.
"He just hasn't earned the right to be at this level on a regular basis," Vigneault said on April 3. "There needs to be more commitment on his part, both on the ice and off. That's part of any young player going through the process of being an NHL player. You've got to figure it out and hopefully he will. When he does, we'll have a good player."
Vigneault had been asked why Miller was having trouble sticking with the Blueshirts. He didn't hold back his criticisms. delivering a wake-up call to the former 2011 first-round draft pick. The message was that Miller needed to raise his on-ice and off-ice commitment levels to realize his full potential and become a full-time NHL player.
A highly-motivated Miller has heard the message loud and clear. He is prepared to meet his coach's expectations by coming into training camp in excellent shape. Miller has joined the Rangers for their non-mandatory informal skates before training camp begins on September 18.
"The only thing I can control right now is what kind of shape I come into camp in," Miller said on Tuesday at the Rangers' Greenburgh, N.Y. training complex. "When it's time to fight for a spot, my goal is to try to stay."
Miller has dedicated himself to offseason training. The only break from his routine came during a brief vacation to Hawaii to attend his mother's wedding.
"I only took a week or two off," Miller said. "It was short. I've been here since the 18th of August. I went out to Hawaii for my mom's wedding, which was really nice. It was a good week. I've only taken a week or two off and come back to it."
Miller reflected on the pointed comments made by Vigneault in April. He said he did not take Vigneault's criticisms personally. Miller understands that the comments came from a constructive standpoint and were fully intended for his long-term benefit.
"I definitely didn't take it personal," Miller said. "The only thing you can do is learn from mistakes and try to be a better pro. Obviously, he's been helpful telling me in a constructive way like that."
This past offseason, veteran forwards Brad Richards, Brian Boyle and Benoit Pouliot all joined new teams. A fierce competition will unfold for their vacated spots during the preseason. Miller will certainly be in the mix, hoping to impress Vigneault and lock down a place in the Rangers' lineup.
Provided they are all healthy, only nine forwards -- Martin St. Louis, Dominic Moore, Rick Nash, Carl Hagelin, Derek Stepan, Derick Brassard, Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider and Tanner Glass -- are guaranteed to begin the regular season in New York. Matthew Lombardi and Lee Stempniak's respective cap hits of $800,000 and $900,000 mean that the Rangers can easily bury the duo in the minors should they not impress during the preseason.
Miller, Stempniak and Lombardi will be competing for those three remaining lineup spots among a deep group of forwards including Kevin Hayes, Jesper Fast, Danny Kristo, Oscar Lindberg, Chris Mueller and Ryan Haggerty.
It's very possible that free-agent winger Ryan Malone will be added to the competition. Malone was invited by Stepan and Ryan McDonagh to attend informal workouts after training with them during the summer in Minnesota. He has skated with the Rangers throughout informal workouts. He's yet to sign a contract, though he said on Monday that he has spoken to Rangers general manager Glen Sather.
Miller understands that the biggest improvement in his game will need to be his positioning, particularly in the defensive zone.
"Yeah, I've got to be more rounded," Miller said. "I think offense comes more natural. I need to be smart all over the ice."
The 21-year-old scored three goals and recorded three assists for six points in 30 regular-season games for the Rangers last season. He appeared in four playoff games, notching two assists.
There's a difference between talented players who stick around as NHL mainstays and ones who fall through the cracks and remain in a constant battle to prove their worthiness. The latter tends to bounce from team to team. Vigneault made this abundantly clear when he spoke about Miller in April.
"If he doesn't figure it out, then he'll be a good minor leaguer," Vigneault said in that same April 3 press conference.
Vigneault further clarified his comments about Miller on April 15.
"I would say to you that 95 percent of young players have to figure it out," Vigneault said. "They get help from coaches. Until they figure it out, they're either gonna figure it out and become good NHL players or they're not and they're going to be good minor leaguers. That comment made to him I could have made to any young player."
Miller doesn't want to be a good minor leaguer. He wants to realize his full potential and make it with the Rangers. Vigneault will soon join up with the Rangers when training camp gets underway on September 18.
Once training camp unfolds, Miller will have the opportunity to make a positive impression. He appears ready to prove to Vigneault that he has paired a correct attitude with his natural ability, as both are attributes required to become a successful individual at the NHL level.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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