VALENCIA, Pa. - If you were to judge by the crowd of autograph seekers swarming J.T. Miller after a practice at the Ice Connection in Valencia, Pa., on Tuesday, you'd have to say he's already made it big.
If you ask Miller, he'd say he's just getting started.
"I want to get stronger and faster," Miller says. "The season's about to start so I'm trying to bear down and get in shape to go into camp in a few weeks."
Miller, an East Palestine native, was the first-round draft selection of the New York Rangers in 2011. In his rookie season, Miller reached the ice in 26 NHL games, tallying two goals and two assists before suffering a wrist injury and finishing the season with Rangers' American Hockey League affiliate the Connecticut Whale. Despite the disappointing end to his first season, Miller refuses to become discouraged.
"I want to earn myself a steady spot on the team," Miller says. "I'm a non-signed player, so as an entry-level guy you just have to go with the flow and hope you make it onto the team."
While Miller did not finish the season with the Rangers, he did get to participate in a playoff push in which every game matters in the standings, especially in the strike-shortened 48-game season. For Miller, the tension alone was worth it.
"Every game is a playoff game for the games I was there," Miller said. "Even when I was hurt and watching it, the atmosphere was unbelievable. Every point mattered."
The Rangers had a tumultuous 2012 campaign in which they finished 26-18-4, good enough for sixth place in the Eastern Conference. After defeating the Washington Capitals in the conference quarterfinals, the Rangers fell in five games to the Boston Bruins in the semis. Four days later, head coach John Tortorella was fired.
"I don't really see it as a clean slate," Miller said. "The management knows me pretty well. My goal is to start on the NHL team and stay there. If I go down first and I have to work my way back up again, that's fine. I'm still young. It's a new staff so I don't know how they feel or what they expect out of me."
Fueling that uncertainty is the wrist injury that forced Miller down to Connecticut on April 9th. While the move was not entirely unexpected given Miller's health at the time, how the Rangers view him now is a much bigger question, especially with a new head coach at the helm.
"It was an annoying injury," Miller said. "I tried to play through it but it was nagging and I needed rest and time to heal. I took a month or two off skating in the offseason to let it rest. It feels good now. Today, I was shooting as hard as I can and there was no pain or anything.
"It's definitely aggravating when you're trying to prove your place on the team. It's unfortunate but you have to let it go and move on. I'm excited to start camp and see where it goes from there."
The Rangers start camp on Sept. 11 at the Madison Square Garden Training Center in Greenburgh, New York where Miller hopes to prove his spot on the roster. The Rangers have shown patience with Miller thus far, giving him limited playing time and letting him recover from injuries, something that Miller does not take for granted.
"I absolutely want to stay with the Rangers," Miller said. "They're a great team and they have a chance to win a championship every year. At the end of the day that's all I play for."
Even two years after being drafted and nearly a year past his NHL debut, the entire experience can be a bit surreal for the East Palestine native.
"It's a day-by-day thing," Miller said. "It's all happened so fast. You don't expect to get called up and play like that. I just want to take it all in fast as fast as I could. You have to learn from everybody."