In order to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, the Canucks must trade J.T. Miller this offseason

Photo credit:Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
1 year ago
How does a GM build a Stanley Cup-contending hockey team?  The simple and obvious answer is to acquire and keep good players. In the modern NHL, however, “good players” simply aren’t enough to push a team to the level of contention — every team, even the Arizona Coyotes, has good players.
To build a winning team in the NHL today, a general manager must optimize his roster through savvy asset management, identifying a team’s competitive window and ensuring that, as a team enters that competitive window, core players are in their primes and are surrounded by a strong supporting cast who can aid them and help them reach their full potential.
Unfortunately, this kind of asset management was probably the greatest weakness of the Canucks’ previous management group, and is why, despite being out of contention for the better part of a decade, they remain burdened by big-money contracts to aging players, and they remain without the kinds of depth support in their development system that help propel the best teams in the NHL to success.
With this in mind, should the Canucks trade J.T. Miller?  Should they re-sign him?  Should they take a wait-and-see approach, and make up their minds at the trade deadline?  What approach to J.T. Miller makes the most sense if the Canucks’ goal is not just to make the playoffs, but to build a true Stanley Cup contender?

The Canucks are not Stanley Cup Contenders at this time

The Canucks have made some smart moves this offseason.  If they continue their strong play from the end of last year, they’re likely a playoff team.  But they’re not contenders — not yet.  If Patrik Alvin and Jim Rutherford take a truly objective, dispassionate look at the Canucks and ask themselves, “If we make the right moves, when will this team be ready to compete for a cup?” the answer is likely two years from now. 
With that in mind, every move the Canucks make should be made with an eye to optimizing the 2024 roster and their chance to win over the several seasons that follow.

Age is Undefeated

If the goal is to contend for a cup beginning in 2024-2025, we must face a depressing but unavoidable fact:  age is undefeated.  Most hockey players peak in their mid-20s.  Almost all hockey players begin to show noticeable signs of age-related decline at 30, and most players, even very good ones, tend to be finished in the NHL by around the age of 35.  Betting on a player to perform similarly between the ages of 30 and 35 as he did between the ages of 25 and 30 is foolish, and handing out big money to over-30 players on the expectation that they’ll continue to play like they did at 27 is simply a bad bet.  
Given these facts, the conclusion is clear — in order to avoid the mistakes of the past and build a true Stanley Cup contender, the Canucks must trade J.T. Miller.
Miller is coming off of a career season.  His value on the trade market will never be higher.  He’s 29 years old, and will be 30 by the end of the year.  As a pending UFA, Miller controls his own fate, and there is no guarantee that even if the Canucks wanted to re-sign him, Miller would return. If the Canucks do retain Miller, by the time they’re truly competitive, Miller will be approaching his mid-30s, and while he may still be an impact player, it’s almost certain that his skills will have begun to regress, and equally as likely that he’ll be signed to a contract that would limit the Canucks’ ability to bring in other talented players who could help push them over the top.
But why not keep Miller for the start of the season, and trade him at the deadline if the team isn’t in a playoff spot? There are two problems with this approach. The first is the risk that Miller is injured and unavailable to be traded at the deadline. The second is one of misplaced priorities.  If management is serious about building a cup contender, and not merely making the playoffs to be bounced in the first round, there’s no sense in keeping Miller for one season when you know that, barring a miracle, you’re not making it out of Round 2. Despite this, the optics of trading one of your top forwards when you’re in a playoff spot at the deadline are such that management would almost certainly balk at a trade in those circumstances. If the Canucks are serious about building a contender, they need to trade Miller now, rather than risk the temptation of retaining him if they’re chasing a playoff spot come February.
There’s no question that J.T. Miller has been elite during his time in Vancouver, or that the Canucks are better this year with him in the lineup than without him. He’s scored over a point per game, posted dominant puck possession numbers, won 55% of his faceoffs, and been a leader on and off the ice. But, when facing a trade, the question to be answered is not: is J.T. Miller a good player?
The question is: in 2024-2025, when the Canucks want to contend for a cup, will they be better off with 33-year-old J.T. Miller on an $8 million contract, or will they be better off with the assets a Miller trade would return, plus $8 million in cap space?
If this management group is serious about bringing a Stanley Cup to Vancouver, they should look to examples set by the Avalanche who, despite having a bounceback season in 2017-2018, traded one of their top players in Matt Duchene; and to the St. Louis Blues, who, despite being in a playoff position at the trade deadline in 2017, traded one of their top defencemen in Kevin Shattenkirk, to see how recognizing you’re not quite there and moving an elite player for picks and prospects can push you over the top and help you to win a Stanley Cup.  
If the Canucks are serious about winning, they can’t hedge their bets by waiting for the trade deadline, or worse, try to sign Miller to a long-term, big-money contract.  The assets that will be returned in a Miller trade could push the Canucks toward contender status, while the opportunity cost of retaining Miller will only hold them back.

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