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JT Miller has been playing like a #1 centre ever since Bo Horvat left the Canucks

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Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Stephan Roget
5 months ago
There have been many times throughout the franchise history of the Vancouver Canucks during which the team has found themselves without a true number one centre. The present moment, however, is decidedly not one of those times.
There is no one left who would dispute Elias Pettersson’s status as a genuine 1C. He’s become a simply dominant two-way force at the position, earning Selke votes and consistently appearing amongst the NHL’s top scorers for the past two calendar years running. That much is certain.
But there’s also an argument to be made that the Canucks actually have two true number one centres — meaning two players meeting the league standard for a 1C —  on their roster, with the second being JT Miller.
The exact label might be up for debate. But what isn’t really debatable is that, at the very least, Miller has been playing like a 1C ever since Bo Horvat left town via a trade to the New York Islanders in late January.
In fact, the difference between Miller pre- and post-Horvat trade is so stark, it bears further examination.
It’s not as though Miller hadn’t played well, or even at the level of a 1C, before that moment. Miller’s landmark 99-point season — which earned him his hefty seven-year, $8 million AAV contract extension — came back in 2021/22, with Horvat as his teammate.
But there was some clear-cut slippage after that.
As of this writing, it’s now been 38 games since Horvat was dealt. In taking a look at the 38 games prior to the trade, we can see just how far back Miller’s production and quality of play had fallen during that stint.
 GamesGoalsAssistsPointsPoints -Per -GameEV PointsPP Points+/-
Nov 5, 2022- Jan 29, 2023381222340.891816-9
From NHL.com
No one can look at that stat-chart and suggest that Miller was playing bad during this stint. A rate of 34 points in 38 games is solid production by nearly any measure, especially for someone who was ostensibly playing a 2C role during that time. But it definitely wasn’t Miller as his best as a Canuck, either, and there are some specifics worth noting.
This version of Miller relied nearly as much on power play production as he did even-strength production, a near-even split. What that really means is that this version of Miller relied heavily on Horvat, the designated shooter on the man advantage, for his points. Take Horvat out of the equation, as eventually happened, and one might expect Miller’s production to drop, no longer able to pick up easy assists to Horvat in the bumper slot.
One also can’t help but notice that -9. Now, everyone knows that plus/minus is a flawed stat, but in this particular instance it captures what everyone was seeing on the ice at the time, which were obvious defensive struggles and shortcomings from Miller.
For these specific 38 games, it could be argued that Miller was not playing to the quality of a number one centre, and also that he was not playing up to his pending $8 million salary.
But, like we said at the outset, that would change as of the Horvat trade.
We’re not here to suggest that Horvat was holding Miller back or anything like that. Much the opposite. The patterns of Miller’s production show that he benefitted clearly from being on the same team and on the same sheet of ice as Horvat.
What appears to have happened here is that Miller felt the need to step up his game following Horvat’s trade. And step it up he has. The numbers are really undeniable in this regard.
 GamesGoalsAssistsPointsPoints -Per -GameEV PointsPP Points+/-
Jan 30, 2023- Oct 24, 2023381630461.212611+12
From NHL.com
Now, who could look at results like that and argue that they don’t meet the minimum NHL standard for the performance of a 1C?
Nobody, that’s who.
The difference, as we said at the outset, is stark.
Minus Horvat, Miller increased his rate of both goal-scoring and assist-earning to a significant extent. A 0.32 rise in PPG over this long a stretch is a lot more than just a hot streak, it’s a straight-up increase in production, and a big one, at that.
The discrepancy in how those points were scored is also well worth discussion. Despite the point total being so much higher, Miller actually scored fewer power play points post-Horvat than he did with him. In turn, Miller’s even-strength production has gone up sharply. But not nearly as sharply as his rate of shorthanded points, which nearly equaled his power play points during this stint.
That goes hand-in-hand with the +12 as obvious demonstrations that Miller didn’t just start scoring more after the Horvat trade, he started contributing more all over the ice. Sure, the power play production might be down slightly, but Miller’s still on the first unit, and that first unit is performing better overall than it was when Horvat was the triggerman.
Maybe always cycling the puck from Miller to Horvat in the bumper was great for Miller’s PP assist rate, but not so good for the Canucks’ special teams overall. So, even in the one column in which his production hasn’t increased, Miller is still contributing as much or more.
Really, the argument makes itself. A PPG of 1.21 over this long a stretch of time, while playing almost exclusively at centre, is the stuff of a 1C, plain and simple.
Normally in this situation, arguments could be made about the quality of competition, as in “1C Pettersson faces the tougher competition, leaving easier minutes for Miller in the 2C role.” But those arguments don’t actually apply very well to Miller, who still faces a QoC that is significantly more difficult than that of an average NHL centre and well within the range of what is expected for a 1C.
 
From HockeyViz.com
Then there’s the leaguewide measures.
Over that same stretch of time, from January 30, 2023 to now, Miller’s 46 points rank him 11th overall in centre scoring, just one point back of Mika Zibanejad and the top-ten. Ahead of Zibanejad is a who’s who of who’s definitely a 1C: Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, Leon Draisaitl, Elias Pettersson, Tim Stutzle, Brayden Point, Dylan Larkin, and Jack Hughes. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is in there, too, but he got most of those points playing on the wing.
Right below Miller, one will find names like Anze Kopitar, Evgeni Malkin, Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, and Sidney Crosby.
It’s a number one centre club, in other words. And it’s a club that “Post-Horvat Mill-one” definitely belongs in.
Just measuring by PPG puts Miller in a tie with Matthews and Zibanejad and into the top-ten leaguewide. Which means that, really, we might have to amend our headline.
Miller hasn’t just been playing like a 1C since Horvat left town. He’s been playing like a top-ten NHL centre. He just happens to be one of two that the Vancouver Canucks currently have on there roster that share that same distinction.
And that’s worth pointing out.

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