Looking to make the leap: J.T. Miller

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“J.T. has to figure it out and hopefully he will. When he does, we’re going to have a good player. If he doesn’t, he will be a good minor league player.

“He just hasn’t earned the right to be at this level on a regular basis. He needs to show more commitment on the ice and off. Until he does that, he hasn’t earned the right.”

That was Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault this past April in the wake of Miller’s sixth demotion to AHL Hartford. Miller, New York’s first-round pick (15th overall) at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, had a tough time winning over Vigneault last season (obviously) and showed signs of regression, scoring just three goals in 30 games in his second year with the Blueshirts.

Which brings us to the present — or, as Miller and the Rangers might refer to it, crunch time.

Heading into the final of his three-year, entry-level deal, Miller is at something of an organizational crossroads. Both he and the club want him established as a full-time NHLer, yet both seem to recognize there are only so many kicks at the can.

“I think we made it pretty clear to [Miller] when he left where he stands and the opportunity in front of him. You only get so many chances,” Rangers assistant general manager Jeff Gorton told NHL.com. “I think J.T. is a pretty proud guy and a confident kid. I think he’s encouraged there’s a chance for him in the lineup. We’re all looking forward to how he comes back, but it’s all up to him.”

One positive for Miller is New York’s thinned-out depth up front, specifically at center. Brian Boyle and Brad Richards are no longer in the mix and that could provide Miller the opportunity to man the middle and utilize his playmaking skills — remember, the former OHL Plymouth standout was a good setup man for the U.S. gold medal-winning squad at the ’13 World Juniors, leading the team with seven assists in seven games.

(Miller, who’s played a bunch of left wing, could also benefit from Benoit Pouliot’s departure to Edmonton.)

One negative for Miller, though, is how New York addressed those departures. The Rangers built forward depth through a number of low-cost veteran signings — Lee Stempniak, Tanner Glass, Chris Mueller, Matthew Lombardi — which makes for crowded competition. What’s more, Miller must keep an eye on another pair of prospects that have made positive impressions on the organization: Jesper Fast and Danny Kristo, the latter of who inked a one-year extension with the Rangers on Tuesday.

The wildcard in all this? Vigneault. He forged a reputation in Vancouver as a coach that prefers experienced, veteran guys that make “high-percentage plays” rather than younger players still figuring things out. He’s also put players on blast before, notably Pouliot — AV actually used the “kicks at the can” line to roast him last November.

“I’ve had this conversation with Ben, I’ve had this conversation with a few players in my career. You only get so many kicks at the can here, you only get so many teams,” Vigneault told The Bergen Record. “Obviously a guy like Ben, a high pick, a high skill level, you see it now and then and you go, ‘Wow, why does the inconsistency or whatever is, not there on a more regular basis?”

While the “only get so many teams” thing doesn’t apply to Miller, the “high pick, high skill level” thing sure does. In light of that, it’ll be interesting to see if Miller responds the same way Pouliot did — after getting called out by Vigneault, the 27-year-old scored 32 points over the final 53 games of the year, potted another 10 in 25 playoff games and then scored a mega five-year, $20 million contract from Edmonton.

The Buzzer: Kopitar keeps Kings rolling; O’Reilly gives Sabres OT win

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Player of the night: Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings. The Los Angeles Kings continued their impressive start on Saturday night with a 6-4 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, improving their record to a league-best 6-0-1 through their first seven games.

Anze Kopitar was the star of the night as he finished with two goals, an assist, three shots on goal, a plus-five rating while also winning 68 percent of his faceoffs.

His second goal of the game, which came with less than three minutes to play in regulation, proved to be the game-winner for the Kings.

Dustin Brown added an empty net goal (he finished with four points in the win) a minute later.

Kopitar is coming off of a down year offensively in 2016-17 but already has 11 points (six goals, five assists) so far this season for a Kings team that looks to be vastly improved under new coach John Stevens.

Highlight of the night. 

For most of Saturday night it looked like the Buffalo Sabres were on their way to another ugly loss, continuing what has been a miserable start to the season. At one point in the second period they found themselves trailing by a 4-1 margin. But they slowly started to chip away then after Evander Kane scored a late third period goal to tie the game, Ryan O'Reilly ended up winning it in overtime on this beauty of a play to give the Sabres their second win of the season.

Factoid of the Night.

The Tampa Bay Lightning have two superstars at forward. They are playing like it. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are the first pair of teammates in more than 15 years to start a season with matching nine-game point streaks. [NHL]

Misc.

— Three more assists for Erik Karlsson on Saturday night giving him six on the season. He has played in two games. After major ankle surgery. He is not human.

Clayton Keller added to his rookie leading goal total with his sixth of the season. He is the one bright spot for the Arizona Coyotes this season as they remain winless after their 4-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.

— With the first two-goal game of his NHL career Tyler Pitlick was the difference for the Dallas Stars in their 4-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes.

Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak are both off to tremendous starts for the Boston Bruins. Both players scored a pair of goals for the Bruins on Saturday night in their 5-4 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres. Both players already have six goals on the season.

James Reimer was great for the Florida Panthers, stopping 41 shots in their 4-1 win over the Washington Capitals. With Roberto Luongo on injured reserve the Panthers are going to need a couple of big games from Reimer over the next week.

Mikhail Sergachev looks fantastic for the Tampa Bay Lightning. He is now up to eight points on the season.

Wayne Simmonds was the hero for the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday with a late goal to help lift them to a 2-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers. He is now up to six goals on the season. Claude Giroux scored his fifth goal in the win.

Logan Couture‘s hat trick was not enough to help the San Jose Sharks in New York on Saturday night against the Islanders. John Tavares had a goal, two assists in the win.

Scores and recaps

New York Rangers 4, Nashville Predators 2

Philadelphia Flyers 2, Edmonton Oilers 1

Buffalo Sabres 5, Boston Bruins 4

Tampa Bay Lightning 7, Pittsburgh Penguins 1

Ottawa Senators 6, Toronto Maple Leafs 3

New York Islanders 5, San Jose Sharks 3

Los Angeles Kings 6, Columbus Blue Jackest 4

Florida Panthers 4, Washington Capitals 1

Dallas Stars 4, Carolina Hurricanes 3

Chicago Blackhawks 4, Arizona Coyotes 2

Minnesota Wild 4, Calgary Flames 2

Vegas Golden Knights 3, St. Louis Blues 2

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Jaromir Jagr leaves game with lower body injury

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Calgary Flames forward Jaromir Jagr played just four shifts on Saturday night before exiting their game against the Minnesota Wild in the first period.

The Flames later announced that Jagr would not return with what the team is calling a lower body injury.

They had no other update.

After going through the entire summer unsigned as a free agent, Jagr finally landed a one-year deal with the Flames just before the start of the season. So far he has appeared in five games for the team recording a pair of assists.

He recorded 46 points (16 goals, 30 assists) while playing in all 82 games for the Florida Panthers a year ago.

Even though he appeared in every game a year ago he still showed some signs of finally starting to slow down, and you have to assume that there is going to be some sort of an injury concern for a player that is turning 46 years old in February.

Senators top Maple Leafs but lose Bobby Ryan for a month

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The Ottawa Senators’ 6-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night came with a price.

After the game coach Guy Boucher confirmed that veteran forward Bobby Ryan broke his right index finger during the game and is expected to miss at least the next month.

Ryan has yet to score a goal for the Senators in eight games this season but has recorded five assists.

He fought through an injury plagued season in 2016-17 that ended with one of the worst individual stat lines of his career. He was able to salvage the season however with a tremendous postseason performance that saw him finish with 15 points (six goals, nine assists) in 19 games as the Senators went all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals where they would lose in double overtime.

The Senators are off to a great start this season earning at least a point in seven of their first eight games (4-1-3).

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Penguins seem to have a backup goalie problem

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The Penguins worked to address one area of concern on Saturday when they acquired forward Riley Sheahan from the Detroit Red Wings.

Now they need to start working on another major area of concern — their backup goalie.

The Penguins had to know Antti Niemi was never going to step into Pittsburgh and replace what Marc-Andre Fleury gave them on the ice, but they had to be expecting a little more than what they have received thus far.

After giving up seven goals in the Penguins’ 7-1 loss in Tampa Bay on Saturday night, Niemi has now given up 16 goals in 128 minutes of hockey this season. His save percentage is a brutal .797.

In games Niemi starts the Penguins are 0-3 and have been outscored 22-6, losing games by margins of 10-1 and 7-1.

In the games he hasn’t started they are 5-0-1 and have outscored their opponents 24-17.

It would be unfair to put all of the blame on Niemi, because even with regular starter Matt Murray in net they have also had stretches where they have struggled defensively and not quite played at the level they showed the past two seasons.

Niemi has also made all of his starts in the second half of back-to-back situations against teams that were not only rested the night before, but also teams that should be among the best in the league this season (the Chicago Blackhawks, two games against the Tampa Bay Lightning).

But none of that can excuse the way Niemi himself has played thus far, either. At some point you  need your goalie to make a save no matter who your team is playing or what is happening around him. His rebound control has been shaky, he looks uncomfortable when he is making saves and it is not like he is coming off of a great performance a year ago. In 42 appearances with the Dallas Stars he finished with an .892 save percentage, one of the worst marks in the league, and was at .905 the year before. He is 34 years old and has not performed at a better than league average level (or even at a league average level) in several years.

It has to be an area of concern for the Penguins because if Murray has a flaw early in his young career it is that he has missed some time due to injury. In the past they have had Fleury there to step in. They do not have that luxury now.

Niemi is only signed for one year at $700,000 so it is not like they have a huge investment in him.

If they decide to go in another direction already (they will probably give Niemi a little bit of a longer leash, I am sure) they have Tristan Jarry in the American Hockey League, or perhaps explore a trade if they are uncomfortable with such a young duo and inexperienced backup behind Murray.

Either way, it is really difficult to see them sticking around with this sort of performance from their backup for much longer.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.