NHL Draft: Coraopolis's Miller ranks high among power forwards

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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- It's not that J.T. Miller had gone unnoticed by scouts until a few months ago.

When a hockey player is 6 feet 1, 198 pounds and not far past his 18th birthday, people who evaluate hockey players for a living tend to pay attention.

But Miller, a center who was born in East Palestine, Ohio, and subsequently moved to Coraopolis, did not make it into the spotlight until the under-18 world championships in Germany a few months ago, when he had a team-high 13 points as the U.S. won its third consecutive gold medal.

"Everything just came together for me [in the tournament]," Miller said. "And we were successful as a team."

Winning the worlds put an exclamation point on what was a fairly productive season for Miller. He was the No. 3 scorer in the U.S. National Team Development program, putting up 11 goals and 26 assists in 48 games against United States Hockey League competition.

"Throughout the year, I think he was good," said Jay Heinbuck, the Penguins' director of amateur scouting. "And then he brought his game to another level in Germany, and I think he caught the attention of a lot of other organizations."

There's a pretty good chance that one of those clubs was impressed enough that it will spend a first-round draft choice on Miller when the NHL entry draft begins shortly after 7 p.m. today at the Xcel Energy Center.

NHL Central Scouting ranks him 23rd among North American forwards and defensemen, but a number of teams seem to have him higher on their prospects boards.

"I think my game just started coming together for me [this season]," Miller said. "All the bits and pieces started coming together."

Part of that, apparently, came from simply getting older.

"I think there were some maturity issues at one point with him," Heinbuck said. "But the feedback we're getting is that he's overcome some of that and has become more focused on hockey and his future."

Miller, who plans to attend the University of North Dakota, credits the national program with enhancing "my development, on and off the ice," one of the payoffs for which should come tonight.

"They were right-on when they told me they were going to do that," Miller said. "I think I've become a better person, on and off [the ice]."

Oh, he still has a few wrinkles that should be ironed out -- a profile on the NHL's website, for example, says Miller is afraid of goats at petting zoos, which is not a trait often associated with power forwards in the NHL -- but very few of them are evident on the ice.

He skates well, especially when going straight ahead, and as evidenced by his statistics, has some pretty well-developed skills, even though no one is projecting him as a 50-goal guy.

Perhaps most important, though, he is not shy about playing like the big man that he is. Don't expect to see finesse from Miller when the situation calls for physicality.

"I feel like I play like a Chris Kunitz type," Miller said. "There's a lot of energy in that guy, and he plays really hard every single game.

"I'm a little taller, but I like the energy he plays with and I like to play with energy."

He made that point rather emphatically with his performance in the under-18 championships. What he did there suggested not only that big games bring out the best in him, but reinforced the idea that the maturity issues some scouts said had troubled them are being rectified.

"Perhaps, he got more focused on the games he was playing in," said David Conte, New Jersey's scouting director. "You get in these tournaments, and it's an intense focus.

"I don't think there was anything terribly wrong with him in the beginning. It just became more illuminated later."

And it just might get Miller a share of the spotlight in St. Paul this evening.

NOTE -- Barring a trade, the Penguins will have the 23rd selection in Round 1. Their second-round pick will be the 54th overall, but they have traded away their third- and fourth-rounders.

Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com .


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