Hot on the heels of a devastating 7-1 defeat to the Colorado Avalanche which was followed up by a 7-4 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights last night, there are loud calls being made for just about everyone to be fired; Jim Benning, Travis Green, maybe even Fin.
But with the coaching staff and front office all just a month into the penultimate year of their contracts, a mass dismissal may not be a realistic expectation…at least, not yet.
Firing a coach or firing a manager is an expensive proposition, because an owner has to cover the remainder of their contract AND the cost of their replacement. With that in mind, it’s probably safer to expect the Vancouver Canucks to shake things up via a major trade before they axe anyone.
Coincidentally enough, it’s also starting to look like a great time to trade one J.T. Miller.
To some, the very notion of trading Miller is going to sound inane. Since arriving in Vancouver, Miller has put up 134 points in 136 games, and in 2021/22, he leads the team with 16 in 14, tying him for seventh overall in NHL scoring.
But to others and as counterintuitive as it may seem, the timing may be right for the Canucks to be better off without Miller than with. Some, like this very author, may even be able to come up with nine reasons — in keeping with the number on JT’s back — why trading him in the immediate future is an option worth exploring.
#1: His Contract Status
Miller’s current contract, under which the Canucks pay him an average of $5.25 million a year to produce a point-per-game, is an absolute steal. It could be considered one of the best-value contracts in the league. But it’s ending at the conclusion of the 2022/23 season, and that’s an important factor in determining his future with the team.
Miller will be a UFA at the end of this contract, and the chances of the Canucks retaining him beyond there are questionable, for reasons that we’ll discuss in a moment. But that shouldn’t affect his trade value too much if the Canucks can act quickly enough.
Recent NHL precedence, primarily when it comes to the Tampa Bay Lightning and their pursuit of Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman, has shown that contending teams are willing to pay an especially high price for players with a little bit of term left.
Renting someone at the Trade Deadline is all well and good, but GMs do seem to be shifting away from that and instead targeting players that will be around for at least two playoff runs, in order to ensure they get full value from their acquisition.
With that in mind, Miller’s trade value should peak sometime between now and the 2022 Trade Deadline, and then slowly roll downhill from there through the Entry Draft and into the 2022/23 regular season. His value might spike up again around the 2023 Trade Deadline, but it’s dangerous to wait that long.
The Canucks’ best chance at maximizing their return for Miller will come when he’s got at least a year left on his current contract, and that time is now.
#2: His Next Contract
Of course, Miller’s contract status is a nonfactor if the Canucks believe they can afford to retain him, but that won’t be easy. Assuming he more-or-less maintains his usual scoring clip throughout this season, Miller will enter extension negotiations with three PPG seasons behind him, and that will ensure he’s asking for something with a term of seven or eight years and an AAV north of $8 million — possibly way north.
Based on precedence and comparables, it would be a fair ask, and someone will give it to him if he makes the open market. But it may not be a price-tag that the Canucks can afford, especially not when our next couple of factors are factored in.
#3: His Age
Part of the reason that Miller will be demanding an expensive long-term commitment is because he’ll be either 29 or 30 years old when he signs his next contract. He’s fully aware that whatever he ends up signing may be his “retirement” contract, and he’ll want to squeeze the maximum value out of the final years of his career.
That’s also precisely why the Canucks should not acquiesce to those demands.
Players typically see their offensive production peak in their mid-to-late-20s and decline through their 30s. Now, Miller is already an atypical case in that his best production years have come after the age of 26, but that doesn’t mean he’s immune to the aging curve.
It’s unlikely for Miller to maintain his PPG status for all that much longer. Heck, it was unlikely for him to ever reach it in the first place, and each year he keeps it beyond this one is a further layer of unlikeliness.
Chances are very good that the next contract Miller signs will be paying him more for his past performance than his future performance, and that is certainly not something the Canucks can afford. They’ve got to keep the future in mind.
Miller isn’t over the hill yet, but his age is slightly misaligned with that of the rest of the Canucks’ core. This team won’t be competitive for another couple of years, at least, as players like Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, and Brock Boeser enter their primes — and, quite possibly, as Miller exits his.
Having a declining Miller on an expensive contract just as the team is starting to contend is a fate worth avoiding, especially when the other contracts they’ll have to hand out are considered.
#4: The Salary Cap
Whether the NHL salary cap rises between now and whenever Miller signs his next contract, the Canucks are going to have to make some difficult decisions.
Brock Boeser needs a raise at the end of this season. After 2022/23, it’s Miller, Bo Horvat, and Nils Höglander up for new deals, and then in the summer of 2024 it’s Pettersson again, along with Tyler Myers and Vasily Podkolzin.
The Canucks are currently capped out. The disappearance of buyout and recapture penalties over the next two seasons, along with any raise in the salary cap ceiling, may create enough wiggle room to account for all those raises, but probably not. Even if it happens, you’re left with another roster with no flexibility and no room for improvement.
Is Miller the most disposable player on the list of upcoming contracts? No, not by a long shot. But he may be the one with the most appealing combination of disposability and trade value.
#5: The “Sell High” Trade Value
One of the oldest economic principles on the books is to buy low and sell high. And if this isn’t the best hockey Miller is going to play in his life, it’s darn close. Trading him sometime during the 2021/22 season, while he’s in the midst of a PPG campaign, would constitute selling high.
Waiting beyond this season, on the other hand, runs the risk of that trade value beginning to diminish. Miller’s production could slow down, he could suffer an injury, or he could signal an unwillingness to re-sign; all things that could tank his return.
But right here, right now, that return promises to be a good one.
Whether it be Jim Benning or someone else asking, the opening bids for Miller have to start with a higher first round pick than the Canucks gave up for him, and there should be significant plusses added on top of that. A first round pick, a bluechip prospect, and a young roster player sounds like a very reasonable base for a Miller trade, and could go a long way toward making the Canucks a well-rounded team.
It might be tempting to seek out an older player in return for Miller — specifically, a right-handed defender — but anyone trading for Miller is going to be a contending team, and thus unwilling to give up established talent. A futures-based trade for Miller is the most realistic outcome, but those futures could be truly dazzling if the Canucks play the market right.
#6: The Number One Center Tax
The fact of the matter is that teams without number one centers will pay through the nose to acquire a number one center. Actually, they’ll pay through the nose to acquire someone even resembling a number one center. Look no further than Nashville giving up a prime Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen, or all the value that has been traded for the ghost of Matt Duchene.
Vancouver fans are well aware that Miller is not a true number one center. He’s a fine fill-in, but he’s better on the wing, and probably shouldn’t be counted on to play that role on a contender.
But to another team? One desperate for 1C to put them over the top?
A team like that could definitely convince themselves that Miller is a number one center. And a team like that could definitely be convinced to pay a nice little “number one center” tax on a trade for Miller.
If the Canucks are able to target a team or two in the market for a top center and convince them that Miller is that center, the trade value could reach truly staggering levels. We’re talking high picks, A+ prospects, and the like.
Watch the mirage of 1C Miller restock the organizational cupboards single-handedly.
#7: The Roster Imbalance
Though the Canucks have overperformed defensively and underperformed offensively in 2021/22, the imbalance in their roster construction is still plain for anyone to see.
The Canucks are loaded up on high-quality forwards, but they’re lacking on the blueline and in their bottom-six depth. The right side of the defence remains a particular spot of concern.
Trading Miller would definitely be dealing from a position of strength. If the Canucks were able to parlay Miller into some additional talent in one of their weaker areas — either directly through trade or by opening up cap space — that would be ideal.
In a salary cap world, balance is everything, and dealing Miller offers an opportunity for balancing, if handled correctly.
#8: His Replaceability
Speaking of that loaded top-six, it also speaks to Miller’s general replaceability.
We’re not saying that the Canucks are going to be able to go out and find another PPG forward easily. But without Miller, they’ve still got a top-six of Pettersson, Boeser, Horvat, Höglander, Garland, and Podkolzin.
Replacing Miller happens primarily from within, with perhaps an extra, cheaper depth offensive option added to fill his position in the top-nine. As in, someone like Höglander slots into Miller’s spot full-time, someone new and inexpensive fills Höglander’s spot, and the team is maybe better off for it.
#9: Jim Benning’s Recent Track Record
Our final reason today may seem just as counterintuitive to some as this entire mental exercise, but bear with us.
It all comes down to trusting Benning to do what he’s been best at lately.
On the one hand, Benning has let A LOT of talent walk away in free agency without any compensation.
Jacob Markstrom, Chris Tanev, and Tyler Toffoli are only the latest in a trend that goes back as far as Dan Hamhuis.
On the other hand, Benning has acquitted himself rather well in trades of late. This past summer’s major swap with Arizona is turning out better than most assumed it would, as was the case for the trade that brought Miller to Vancouver in the first place.
In the last few years, Benning has definitely won more trades than he’s lost.
And so, we’ll leave you with this to ponder:
Do you want Benning to start exploring the trade market for Miller, and attempting to maximize what could be an awe-inspiring return?
Or do you want him to continue to try to negotiate an extension with Miller throughout the next season-and-a-half, knowing how poorly that has gone in the past?
Say what you will about Benning, but he’s never been a multitasker. He’s going to pick one path to pursue with Miller and stick to it — and one path just happens to look a lot safer than the other at this exact moment.