New York Rangers center problems can be solved in-house

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 02: J.T. Miller
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 02: J.T. Miller /

With the free agent market thinning out, the New York Rangers still need to fill out their center group heading into this fall’s training camp. Recently, General Manager Jeff Gorton suggested that one answer might be in-house.

The New York Rangers have had a mostly shining summer. They overhauled their defense, on paper moving from perhaps a bottom-five group last year to a top-five group this year. The incredibly team-friendly signing of Kevin Shattenkirk and buyout of Dan Girardi give them a dangerous top pair.

The re-signing of Brendan Smith solidifies the second pair, along with Brady Skjei. Some questions remain around the third pair (and veteran Marc Staal), but the biggest problem now is at center.

The Rangers were able to sign Shattenkirk with cap space cleared in the Derek Stepan trade. While that is a good thing, it still leaves the Rangers with question marks. Stepan is a bonafide top-line center, scoring at a high rate while being defensively excellent. Replacing that kind of play will be difficult.

The hope is that Mika Zibanejad can take another step forward next year and slot in on the first line, but Kevin Hayes is still a question mark on the second line. His scoring numbers during the 2016-17 season went up, but his shot and attempt percentages cratered while playing defensive deployments.

With the loss of Oscar Lindberg in the expansion draft, those are the two current Rangers options at center…with one possible exception.

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A homegrown solution

J.T. Miller, as Gorton recently mentioned, is a natural center. While he has spent most of his time with the New York Rangers on the wing, it’s clear the organization still sees him as an option to fill in.

On the surface, this might be a pretty good idea.

Miller puts up pretty strong numbers across the board, with the exception of shot suppression. His scoring is impressive, and it’s reasonable to hope for improvement on the defensive side of the puck if given more practice at center.

However, questions remain. After all, Miller has done his best work at wing and often struggled earlier in his career when playing center. Sure, he’s taken some faceoffs because Hayes is weaker at the dot, but that’s a different animal entirely. Playing center comes with a whole host of defensive responsibilities.

Miller is a creative, up-and-down-the-rink player with a penchant for gaining the zone with possession. He’s gotten very good at opening up space attacking on the wing.

It’s unclear what moving to the middle would do to that. For one thing, Miller won’t be breaking out of his own zone with the puck as often. As a center, he’ll be tasked with playing lower in the defensive zone and helping move the puck to his wingers.

Barring a trade for someone like Matt Duchene, the next-best option at center is Boo Nieves, who may not even be ready for fourth line NHL duty.

Next: Rangers should target free agent C Mikhail Grigorenko

2017 first-round draft pick Lias Andersson is sure to get a long look in camp, but he’s another question mark. If he impresses, that may ease some concerns, but that won’t happen until long after the Rangers are forced to make a decision at center. As it stands right now, though, the Rangers’ best bet is probably Miller at second line center.