Did the Rangers make a mistake with JT Miller’s bridge deal?

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 2:10 am by Pat Keogh

The New York Rangers found themselves in a fairly unique
situation this offseason, with four different RFAs filing for arbitration. Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, JT Miller, and Dylan McIlrath all opted to file for
arbitration, although each one of them settled before their set date. 

Chris
Kreider was the only one to sign a long-term deal, inking a four-year deal that
pays him an average of $4.625 million per year. The other three all signed
bridge deals, which may be prudent in the cases of Dylan McIlrath and Kevin
Hayes (or not, but that’s a discussion for another day) but with regards to JT
Miller, the Rangers might be setting themselves up for more cap issues down the road.

Let’s start with a little background. The Rangers found
themselves in a bit of a cap conundrum at the start of the offseason, which led
to their inability to re-sign an elite puck-moving defenseman in Keith Yandle.
Losing Yandle was a blow, but it shouldn’t have come as a surprise, given that
the team has just about $11 million tied up in Dan Girardi and Marc Staal.
Largely due to those two unwieldy contracts, the Rangers need good value
signings wherever they can get them.

One of the Rangers front office’s savvier moves this
offseason towards that end was trading Derick Brassard for Mika Zibanejad. With
this move the Rangers get younger, faster, and $2.35 million dollars
cheaper.  As it stands currently the
Rangers have about $3.6 million dollars in cap space, which may go up or down
slightly depending on who gets buried in the AHL, as well as Pavel Buchnevich
and Brady Skjei being added in.

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All of that cap space may portend another trade for the
Rangers, so I acknowledge that perhaps signing Miller to a bridge deal instead
of a long-term contract is part of some bigger picture that only management can
see at the present moment. It’s also entirely possible that Miller himself
didn’t want to sign a long term contract, knowing that a bridge deal will
inevitably lead to a more sizeable raise down the road. Nonetheless, the final
result of a bridge deal may just be setting the Rangers up for more cap
struggles down the road, when both Miller and Hayes are due raises. While the
Rangers do have a preference towards bridge deals for young players (Ryan
McDonagh notwithstanding) a long-term deal for JT Miller may have been more
appropriate.

East Palestine, Ohio’s very own Jonathan Tanner Miller was selected
15th overall by the New York Rangers in the 2011 NHL Draft and has
had an interesting career since. Starting his career off with the Plymouth
Whalers, with whom he registered 62 points in 61 games, he made his way to the
AHL’s Connecticut Whale (which was previously the Hartford Wolfpack, and now is
once again) for the 2012-2013 season, notching 8 goals and 15 assists in 42
games played.

That season he was called up to the Rangers and was good for
4 points, two goals and two assists, in 26 games. Despite this, he found
himself back with the big club to start the next season, putting up three goals
and three assists in 30 games before being sent down to the Wolfpack. There he
really began to shine, registering 43 points in 41 games in 2013-14 and 15
points in 18 games in 2014-15 before being called up once again.

After finally being given a real shot in the show, Miller only
put up 23 points in 58 games. While it may seem strange to advocate a long-term
deal for someone who seemingly underperformed at that level not two years ago,
it’s worth noting that he found himself in an indeterminate role on various
lines with various linemates. This didn’t exactly set him up to succeed, and
given the fact that he was more or less a point per game player in the AHL by
then, it’s fair to say that the only appropriate place for him was the NHL. It’s also important to look at his underlying numbers for this season, which have an elucidating effect as to whether or not he truly underperformed.

Last season proved to be a much different case for Miller, as he was given consistent linemates and put up solid point totals. Playing a hard forechecking style and finding chemistry in the Rangers’ top-six, he put up 22 goals and 21
assists in 82 games. This was good enough to earn him a spot on the World Cup
of Hockey Team North America roster, which includes other 23-year-olds such as
Brandon Saad and Johnny Gaudreau. If there was any doubt the previous season about number 10’s potential, suffice to say that his 2015-2016 form dispensed with it handily.

Even so, you might find yourself questioning the wisdom of
offering a long-term contract to someone who’s had only one full season of
solid hockey at the NHL level. This is a pretty natural reaction, and something
I might not be able to dissuade you from, but let me at least make the case. A
comparison with Miller’s teammate Chris Kreider, as well as Kyle Palmieri of
the rival New Jersey Devils, helps clarify things some.

All three of these players have a similar style of play, are
of similar age, and found themselves in similar (although not identical)
contract situations this offseason. What’s more is that their underlying
numbers are similar, making the case for a multiyear deal for Miller about as
logical as the same case to be made for Kreider (which was the right move).

Instead of beginning by comparing this past season’s
numbers, let’s take a look at the season before that, when Miller was
“underperforming” and juggled around quite a bit. In the 2014-15 season, JT
Miller’s goals/60 rate was 0.72, while Kreider’s was 0.79 and Palmieri’s was
actually just lower than Miller’s at 0.71 (all of these numbers are at even strength). This indicates that although Kreider
and Palmieri were considered bona fide NHLers at that point and Miller was just
finding his way, the three scored goals at similar rates. When looking at
primary points/60 rates for the three players Kreider was the better player
that season at 1.58 to Miller’s 1.26, and again Miller bested Palmieri, who
registered primary points at a rate of 1.07 per sixty minutes of hockey
played.

Up next for your consideration is each player’s ability to
drive shots attempts relative to their teammates. In this category Miller, with
limited ice time and fluctuating linemates actually put up the best numbers of
the three players. While Chris Kreider and Kyle Palmieri’s relCF%s in 2014-15
were 0.91 and 0.40 respectively, JT Miller’s was 1.66. So much for
underperforming.

Moving on to last season, the numbers again demonstrate that
Miller is the real deal, or at the very least a player comparable in skill to
Kreider and Palmieri. The three players’ relCF%s last season were 3.42, 3.05,
and -1.18 for Kreider, Miller, and Palmieri respectively. Looking at their
scoring rates reinforces this point; Kreider and Palmieri had the same goals/60
last year at 0.88 with Miller putting up 0.96. As far as primary points go
Miller’s 1.58 primary points/60 was right in line with Kreider’s at 1.59 and once again
better than Palmieri’s 1.32.

So it’s clear that JT Miller is a legitimate scoring winger
capable of playing at the NHL level and has been the entire time he’s worn a
Rangers sweater, perceived slumps and all. The issue I’m raising has to do with
his contract. The Rangers knew ahead of time that they were trading Brassard
(the trade was only held up due to a bonus Ottawa didn’t want to pay)
and had some idea of the cap room they’d be working with regarding their
RFAs. A few other low-key moves to create wiggle room and the Rangers could
have taken the opportunity to push for something like four or five years just
below what Kreider’s making, perhaps around $4 million per year.

Instead we got a bridge deal, and two years from now
Miller’s going to command an even bigger raise than what he would’ve gotten on
a multiyear deal this offseason. Although it’s entirely possible that the
Rangers retool their cap situation by then and make room for the eventual
contract, it doesn’t change the fact that they could have him for slightly more
now instead of a lot more later. It’s worth recalling the case of Derek Stepan
when he held out through training camp for a long-term contract. At the time
his ask was five or six years at $5 million per, which most certainly would
have come down if the contract ended up being signed. He got a bridge deal
though, and ended up costing the Rangers $6.5 million per year instead.

At the end of the day the contract’s signed and done with,
but it’s still worth considering what could have been a bargain contract for a
top-six winger in an alternate universe. The Rangers continued their tradition
of bridging RFAs, kicking the can down the road once again. It’s a strategy
that’s part of what’s ailing the Rangers salary cap management, and it would’ve
been nice to see them avoid it with JT Miller.