The talk surrounding J.T. Miller and the Vancouver Canucks has decidedly shifted over the past few weeks. Whereas all previous chatter seemed to center around the possibility of the Canucks trading Miller — and especially the bounty of assets he’d presumably return — the word on the street now indicates that the Canucks’ extending Miller beyond next year is the most likely outcome.

That’s partly due to the 2022 Trade Deadline already having come and gone, but it’s mostly down to Miller’s recent level of play. Instead of slowing down, as some predicted, he’s only ratcheted up his production, and now he’s a top-ten NHL scorer on pace for the best Canuck season since the Sedins exited their prime.

But that only goes as far as to explain why Patrik Allvin and Co. might want to re-sign Miller. Actually coming up with a contract that works for both sides is going to be the real challenge.

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Last week, Elliotte Friedman told Rick Dhaliwal and Don Taylor that he believed Miller’s camp was seeking a new contract that looked an awful lot like the one Mika Zibanejad recently signed with the New York Rangers. Based on age, production, and importance to their teams, Miller and Zibanejad are definitely comparable. But the Canucks really can’t afford to give Miller anything approaching the eight-year, $68 million contract that Zibanejad received.

An eight-year contract at a high salary is, quite simply, far too long to commit to a player who will be 30 years old before the contract even kicks in. The odds of Miller producing at a level worthy of an $8.5 million salary in every season from ages 30-38 are slim. And with other, younger core pieces already in place, the consequences of Miller’s contract becoming an albatross could be dire.

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Some have pointed out that Miller’s career path has been atypical, and that there’s still a chance that he remains relatively productive throughout the length of an eight year contract. And, yeah, there’s a chance. But it’s not a very good chance. Continuing to produce at a PPG or near that for the next three seasons? Not exactly a guarantee, but very possible. Keeping it up for years four and five? Doable, maybe. But posting superstar numbers at age 36 and beyond? That’s nigh impossible.

Right now, $8.5 million represents more than 10% of a team’s total salary cap. Looking around the league, there are exactly two forwards aged 36 or older who are providing a level of play that is actually worth of 10% of their team’s cap. Those players are Alexander Ovechkin and Patrice Bergeron, perhaps the greatest goal-scorer and greatest two-way forward of all-time. That’s privileged company, and expecting Miller to join them one day is not particularly realistic.

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The Canucks don’t even have to look outside their own team to see the truth in that. They’ve got Oliver Ekman-Larsson signed to a boat anchor of a deal that is only going to get worse as OEL advances through his 30s. Would Vancouver really want to get into a similar situation with Miller right after they finally get out of the OEL deal?

But it could actually be much, much worse than that. Because, at the end of the day, the Canucks will be able to buyout the last couple of years of Ekman-Larsson’s contract without too much trouble.

If they sign Miller to “The Zibanejad,” however, a buyout won’t be on the table. Which, really, is probably exactly what Miller’s camp is looking for when they ask for such a contract.

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Zibanejad’s new pact with the Rangers, which starts as of the 2022/23 season, grants him just $1 million in base salary each year.
The rest comes in the form of massive, yearly signing bonuses. Such bonuses are guaranteed money, even in the case of a buyout, and such contracts have traditionally been referred to as “buyout-proof.” Any buyout leaves all that bonus money on the cap, rendering such a move functionally useless and financially ruinous.

In other words, if the Canucks sign Miller to “The Zibanejad,” they’re firmly committing to all eight years of the deal.

That simply cannot happen, but it does give some insight into how negotiations might take shape from here on out.

An eight-year, buyout-proof contract with an $8.5 million is going to net Zibanejad a guaranteed $60 million over the course of the deal. That’s the real number that Miller’s camp will be pointing at as a target.

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Offering him something at the same salary, but a lesser term, just isn’t going to cut it. That would be asking Miller to take more than $20 million in guaranteed money off the table. Given the likelihood of the contract offers he’d received on the open UFA market, that’s a bridge too far.

Fortunately, there may be another way to approach this. A five-year contract extension, while not ideal, would certainly be more digestible than an eight-year. A five-year deal covers Miller from ages 30-35, and while he’s still not guaranteed to keep producing at a high rate through all those years, he’s definitely a lot more likely to than he is to keep producing until he’s 38.

Even if Miller tails off, a five-year contract works better. Imagine Miller having a regressive season at age 34, and knowing that the Canucks just have to eat another year of the deal before they get out of it. Now, imagine the same scenario, but there are four more years to go.

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That’s the difference between a slight salary problem and a crippling.

But how do the Canucks get Miller down from an eight-year ask to a five-year agreement?

They’re going to have to increase the salary.

Let’s add an extra annual million to the mix. That gives Miller an AAV of $9.5 million. Assuming the contract is structured like Zibanejad’s, with minimal base salary and enormous signing bonuses, it would give him something like $42.5 million in guaranteed money.

From Miller’s perspective, that’s obvious taking a bit of a discount. But it also gives him an extra $5 million over the first five years of the contract than he would have got from an eight-year, $8.5 million AAV. And it also gives him the opportunity to sign another contract after the fact.

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Would Miller really recoup $17.5 million worth of contracts from ages 36-38? Probably not, honestly. But he’d likely get some of it, and with some wise investments, could actually come out of the five-year contract and whatever comes after richer than he would have out of the eight-year contract.

But a discount is still a discount. As much as the Canucks can’t afford to go over five years, these numbers demonstrate exactly why Miller can’t afford to go under.

From the Canucks’ perspective, five years is still a big commitment, but a decidedly more manageable one. As for the $9.5 million AAV? That’s a lot, and it might even be more than Miller is worth in the present day. But if they’re already comfortable with an $8.5 million AAV, is an extra million a year really going to break the bank?

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Assuming that the days of the Canucks adding onerous contracts on a yearly basis are over, it should be possible for them to squeeze room for an extra million over the next half-decade. It’s also a lot more possible than it will be to squeeze room for an extra $8.5 million each year in the half-decade that follows, which would be the case if Miller were to land that eight-year deal.

Really, wouldn’t it be preferable for the Canucks to overpay for Miller while he’s in his prime than to overpay for him when he’s out of his prime? From where we’re sitting, that’s hard to argue with.

And so, there we have it. Given what Miller’s camp is asking for, a five-year, high-salary, bonus-heavy contract extension doesn’t just look like the Canucks’ best hopes of retaining him, it looks like their only real hope.

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Whether either side would actually be amenable to such a contract remains to be seen.