The other guys, namely Rick Nash and Michael Grabner and Nick Holden and Ryan McDonagh, you knew they were going and you knew why. But J.T. Miller? J.T. Miller is the 25-year-old power winger a team does what it can to acquire, not trade, to jump-start a rebuild.
“I don’t know. It’s probably safer for me not to dwell on what might have happened with the Rangers, but what I take from it is that this team here really wanted me,” the Lightning’s first-line left wing told The Post before Monday’s Game 3 against the Devils in Newark. “I was told before the deadline that [the Rangers] weren’t looking to move me, but they would if the right deal came along.
“So when it went down, I wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t offended. Not at all. I didn’t take it personally. It was just kind of [a] weird feeling, but the way it ended in New York, those last few weeks, it was strange for everybody.”
Three games before the end in New York, Miller played on the fourth line with Peter Holland and Cody McLeod. Now he skates with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. No. 10 didn’t wind up in Tampa Bay. He wound up in heaven.
“I’m so happy to be here,” said Miller, who recorded 18 points (eight goals, 10 assists) in 19 regular-season games with the Lightning and had one assist in his team’s opening two victories in this series. “It’s a special team that has a great opportunity to win. Everyone here understands that and embraces that. I’m thrilled they wanted me.”
Coming up on restricted free agency and due a long-term deal in the neighborhood of $5 million per to keep him off the 2019 open market, Miller might have been traded anyway. There had been too many lapses, too many of the same mistakes and too little evidence of personal growth for the Rangers to feel secure in investing that kind of contract, with or without Alain Vigneault, a master of tough love, behind the bench.
“I don’t think it’s a secret that A.V. and I were not a great fit,” said Miller, who could never completely escape the doghouse despite the package of size, speed and physicality he embodies. “I’d say there are better fits for both of us.”
Jeff Gorton knew at the deadline that Vigneault might not be back next season. Yet that didn’t stop him from listening on Miller, for whom, we’re told, the Blueshirts received several legit offers. The Lightning had been interested in him since 2014, when his name came up during the talks that led to the Ryan Callahan-Marty St. Louis exchange.
When the Lightning joined the McDonagh Derby, the Rangers homed in on Libor Hajek, the 20-year-old defenseman whom Tampa Bay had selected 37th overall in 2016. General manager Steve Yzerman refused to part with him until Miller became part of an expanded conversation in which Vladislav Namestnikov was then added to the mix.
“It was never personal with A.V. and me. I never took it that way,” Miller said. “He taught me how to get through all the crap and become a player in this league. I have nothing bad to say about the Rangers or anyone there.
“It’s really unfortunate how it ended. There’s no one to blame and it was no one’s fault, but it was sad to see and be a part of. We weren’t playing well, then we were told by management that no one was safe, and it became a very negative environment. It was ugly at the end for a team that had been as good as we’d been. It was tough for all of us to take.
“It was sad. No one wanted it to end that way.”
But New York is in the rearview for Miller, who gets to live these first days of the rest of his hockey life with Stamkos and Kucherov on a prime Cup contender.
“Being here, playing for this team, it’s special,” Miller said. “The Rangers are in the past for me. I’m not looking back at all.”