TARRYTOWN — After celebrating with his “40-plus” family members who, according to EJ Emery, accompanied him to the NHL Draft in Las Vegas last week, the Rangers’ first-round pick finally got a chance to look at his phone.

As he scrolled through the countless messages, one immediately stood out.

“I saw K’Andre (Miller) text me,” he said with a big smile after the final day of development camp at the MSG Training Center on Wednesday. “I was pretty excited about it.”

Emery has been compared to the Rangers’ dynamic defenseman for a few obvious reasons: his height, reach and high-end skating, plus the fact that they’re both products of the U.S. National Team Development Program. He’s even named Miller as a player whose game he emulates. But there are a few notable differences, too, beyond the fact that he shoots from different angles. (Emery is right-handed, while Miller shoots left-handed.)

Miller is more skilled, with soft hands and a better track record of scoring points. Even as a USNTDP prospect, he would attack in transition and find ways to create offense.

That may explain why Emery went to the Rangers with the 30th overall pick in the draft, when other teams preferred defensemen with a higher scoring edge. But where scouts think he has an advantage at this stage of his development is in his own end.

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Considered by many to be the USNTDP’s best defender last season, his refined ability to shut down opponents caught the attention of the Blueshirts.

“EJ is a very talented young man,” director of player personnel and amateur scouting John Lilley told reporters at the draft. “He’s raw. Very athletic. He’s just starting to come into his own. He’s got a lot of work to do to get a little bit stronger, but the foundation is there. He’s an excellent skater and his defensive game, we as a staff felt, was one of the best in the entire draft. He finishes plays and, to me, is an elite defender.”

Emery took a unique route to the USNTDP, which has become a breeding ground for potential Rangers players in recent years.

His father, Eric, was born in Shreveport, Louisiana and grew up in Compton, California, but moved to Canada to pursue a football career. He played three seasons in the CFL and eventually settled in Surrey, British Columbia. It was there that Eric Jr. was born and raised, eventually following in his father’s athletic footsteps.

“I played a bunch of sports – football, lacrosse, basketball, I ran track and played hockey,” Emery recalled. “I did it all growing up. Football was obviously a big thing in my family because my dad played in the CFL for the BC Lions, won a Grey Cup there, so I grew up playing a bunch of sports and running for them all. Hockey took over.”

Emery could have competed in one of the Canadian junior leagues like his peers, but because of his father’s American roots, there was another option.

The program made a recruitment offer, prompting him to pack his bags and move to the United States in 2022.

“I went down there to visit,” Emery said. “I got to see a day in the life of the ’04s and ’05s (birth-year players), and from that point on it was kind of a no-brainer. It’s the best place to develop as a player, and if you train two hours a day and practice two hours a day, you’ll get better as a hockey player.”

That decision paid off: Emery improved his game against top players and earned a scholarship to the University of North Dakota.

He also increased his value as a draft prospect, turning heads with a stellar performance at the NHL Combine, finishing first in the vertical jump, horizontal jump and armless jump, and also had the third-largest wingspan.

Those impressive attributes translate onto the ice, with the 6-foot-1, 180-pound player using his speed, active stick and athleticism to thwart opponents. It was evident at development camp, where other prospects struggled to beat Emery and often saw pucks poked away before they had a chance to make a play.

“My skating ability, I think that’s a huge strength that I have, and how well I can defend the rush and close plays really quickly,” he said. “Being able to skate with everybody and use my size to my advantage, that’s definitely a really big factor in how well I defend.”

The work ethic seemed to be there too, with Emery being the last player on the ice on both Tuesday and Wednesday. This was coming off a wild week that saw him travel straight from Vegas to New York, but he certainly didn’t look tired.

“It’s just been highlights,” he said. “I just got drafted and the next thing I know I’m flying out here and on the ice.”

Emery is also aware that there are holes in his game that need to be filled.

He likely would have been drafted earlier if he had had more than 16 assists (and no goals) in 61 games for the USNTDP last season. Offensive may not be his strong suit, but developing enough skills to produce clean breaks, promote possession and occasionally join the rush are important next steps.

Ultimately, this can make the difference between a one-dimensional bottom-pairing role and a complete defender who can play further up the lineup.

“I still have to work on the puck touch, being patient with the puck, staying calm and getting the puck to the forwards,” he said.

The 18-year-old will get the chance to do that as a freshman at UND next season, and he’ll likely have to spend several years in college to improve his game and get stronger.

Expect the Rangers to be patient with a talented player they believe will eventually have the size, mobility and defensive mindset they desire. “He’s a player that needs some time,” Lilley said. But it could be worth the wait.

“I’m just going to go to college and try to have the best year I can,” Emery said. “(I) will worry about (my NHL timeline) going forward.”

Vincent Z. Mercogliano is the New York Rangers reporter for the USA TODAY Network. Read more of his work at and follow him on Twitter @vzmercogliano.