In defence of J.T. Miller
Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
By Noah Strang4 months ago
J.T. Miller is the most controversial figure in Vancouver sports. The 29-year-old winger is in the midst of his worst season for the Canucks as he’s struggled to perform at even an average level at 5-on-5. He does have 30 points in 36 games, but 15 of those points have come while on the power play.
After agreeing to a massive extension worth $56 million with the club this past offseason, Miller’s struggles haven’t been able to fly under the radar. He’s been the target of plenty of criticism from fans and media alike this season. Putting pen to paper on a massive extension comes with massive expectations, and Miller hasn’t met those thus far.
It’s easy to hate on Miller. He’s brash, unapologetic, and wears his heart on his sleeve. He doesn’t care what other people think about him. Despite that, he’s also arguably been the Canucks’ best skater over the last four years, consistently appearing on the scoresheet.
Miller hasn’t had the perfect start to the 2022-23 NHL season. That’s not up for debate. However, he has had to deal with a lot more than people give him credit for. He’s an easy punching bag for people looking for someone to blame, but a more nuanced look at the situation suggests that blame may be misguided.
The ever-rotating cast of linemates
For the past decade, the Canucks’ organization has lacked any kind of stability. This can be seen in many aspects of how the organization operates, though perhaps the most glaring is the huge number of line combinations iced by the team. While Bruce Boudreau isn’t as hasty as former coach Travis Green was to mix things up, the Canucks still do alter their lines quite often.
This season has been especially difficult for Miller in this regard. He’s been asked to play both centre and wing, two positions with vastly different job descriptions.
“It’s a work in progress,” Jim Rutherford told Postmedia’s Ben Kuzma when asked about the situation. “Every time anybody tried to do anything, we want it done yesterday. But there’s a process. I’m not complaining about this, but there have been a lot of line changes with JT [Miller] at centre and then wing.”
When playing centre, a position he’s been moved back to recently, he hasn’t always been given the most gifted linemates. Curtis Lazar has been one of Miller’s most common wingers over the last few games. Lazar was signed to be a checking centre and is far from the player that can unlock the offensive upside we’ve seen from Miller.
Miller’s quality of competition
Another factor in Miller’s subpar play this season has been his quality of competition. For the first time in a Canucks jersey, he’s being asked to go against the top players in the league in more of a two-way role.
Freeing up your teammates to play against weaker competition is not something that shows up in the box score but it makes a big impact nevertheless. Take a look at Miller’s most common forward matchups over the last few games and you’ll find some of the biggest names in the league.
JT Miller’s most frequent forward matchup over the past few weeks with time on ice.
This is not a role that he has been used at extensively in the past, nor one that his skill set is very well suited to. However, the Canucks lack a true matchup top-six centre and thus they need to force a square peg into a round hole. They tried to do it for years with Bo Horvat and are finally seeing how it suppressed his offensive potential.
Miller going up against other teams’ top lines has been one of the factors in Horvat and Pettersson’s breakout seasons. We all remember the years of Horvat dealing with the intense workload of this matchup role and how it affected him. Now that Miller is taking on some of that burden, he’s dealing with similar effects.
Miller has also been unlucky this season. His relative CF% (Corsi percentage) is actually 2.42%, meaning he helps the Canucks drive more of the play while he’s on the ice compared to off. Unfortunately, that hasn’t helped much on the scoreboard due to an extremely low 6.12% team on-ice shooting percentage.
JT Miller career cross and on-ice advanced stats. (NaturalStatTrick)
He’s been the victim of some bad luck. Over a large enough sample size, that on-ice shooting percentage should start to creep back up closer to 9%. While the current narrative is to emphasize how badly the Canucks get outscored with Miller on the ice, at least part of that deficit can be credited to his poor puck luck this season.
The target on Miller’s back
It wasn’t Miller that decided to pass on the trade offers last season. He didn’t force the Canucks to hand him this large extension.
Much of the Miller hate is misdirected. Fans see the large extension and a lazy backcheck and feel frustrated by the fact that there’s going to be another bloated contract to deal with for the next seven years. That frustration and anger shouldn’t be directed at Miller at all.
Instead, it’s the new management group that entered this situation fully aware of what happened to the last regime and still decided to hand Miller that long deal. It was fairly clear from the moment it was signed that the contract was a massive risk and one that was unlikely to bear fruit for the Canucks.
Miller was never a defensive matchup nightmare nor a top-line centre that could carry his own line. He’s been miscast this season as someone he’s not. While his extension doesn’t look great, he can still be a good player when placed in the correct role.
Miller is going to be a significant part of the Canucks’ future no matter how much noise builds in the market. Instead of being worried about this extension — a blunder, but not a catastrophic mistake in the big picture — fans should be concerned about the process that led to it, and how the new management group fell right back into the same pitfalls that Vancouver knows far too well.
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