The one clear trade win from the Benning Era became much clearer during the 2021-2022 season. Jonathan Tanner Miller played the best hockey of his career and was a key reason why the Canucks were even in the playoff race come April. The Pavel Bure Award winner was the most entertaining player all year, hands down.
Yes, that includes the pre-Boudreau bump times.
Joking aside, there’s a lot to talk about when it comes to Miller’s season. During the Canucks’ early-season slide to the basement, he was the lone bright spot in the forward corps. Miller tallied 23 points in the first 25 games before Travis Green got the boot. However, though the stats were decent during this period, there was plenty of frustration in the air. The hot mics picked up on the on-ice language, while presser comments like these showed quite a bit of dissatisfaction on Miller’s part.
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Coupling this with the hot mess that was the 2021 season, there was understandably tension among the fanbase. With the Canucks plunging to the bottom of the Pacific, it felt like they were moments away from blowing this failed experiment up. Benning’s desperate bid to sneak into the playoffs was doomed.
And then came the jersey toss.
In what was a watershed moment of the season, Bruce Boudreau’s arrival breathed fresh air into the entire franchise. It also galvanized Miller. He went on to score 76 points in the last 55 games including an impressive 37 points in 24 games across February and March. Now, instead of empty stats, the best Canucks number nine since Russ Courtnall was contributing to wins.
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Though the uphill climb came up short, Miller’s career-high totals put him ninth in league scoring. He was so good in the new year that he literally priced himself out of every possible trade discussion. There was no team that could match the asking price of Rutherford and co. No wonder too, as Miller is estimated to have contributed a points share of 10.6, good enough to be in the top 30 across the league.
What’s encouraging is that this production looks sustainable. Miller’s shooting percentage finished at 15.5%, which is bang average for his Canucks tenure. In fact, it actually comes in at 0.9% below his 16.4% shooting percent back in the 2019-20 campaign. He shot a lot more, with a career-high 206 shots credited to him and a jump of 100 from the previous year. Miller also saw an increase in defensive zone starts compared to last year, 45.3% vs 40.8%, showing that his production was not a product of advantageous deployment.
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Miller continued being a possession hound and play driver. His Corsi For% and Fenwick For% peg him as the sixth-best possession player on the Canucks, controlling the puck more often than not when he was on the ice. This comes despite the Lotto Line being broken up, Miller spending the majority of the season with the likes of Tanner Pearson stapled to his line instead. It helps when he has the confidence to score like this, too.
His power play impact shouldn’t be understated too. Miller scored 38 points while on the man advantage, hovering around the usual 35%-39% range of his total points during his Vancouver stint. With the pass-happy powerplay struggling to click, his willingness to shoot was something very much needed by the first unit.
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There were plenty of intangible impacts of his presence. Always a vocal leader, Miller is very much a heart and soul player. Many Vancouver teammates and coaches can point to him as someone who rallies the rest of the lineup around him.
However, like most of the Canucks fandom, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.
There are some valid concerns about his defensive play. At times, Miller appears to have his controller disconnected or something, pulling up on the backcheck or not picking up his mark. It happened a lot more at the start of the year, though the Boudreau-era Miller wasn’t invulnerable to lackadaisical efforts at times.
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Though Miller was rocking an impressive expected goals-for of 49.6, he was also giving up an expected goals-against of 50.2. The -0.6 expected +/- puts him at a whopping 532nd in the NHL. Miller also saw an uptick of giveaways, with 62 on the season being yet another career-high. And, while he was on the ice, the Canucks’ expected save percentage dropped to 89.6%, ranking him as the 5th worst skater in that regard. Of course, Miller isn’t exactly expected to be a two-way forward, but it is important to point out some shortcomings defensively.
There is also the whole to re-sign, to not re-sign conundrum. Thanks to his excellent play, Miller is due for a big pay raise. His current 5.25 million AAV cap hit is an absolute steal, but it won’t be for long. There is one year left and all signs point to a massive figure for Miller’s next deal.
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There’s no debate about Miller’s ability as a player and production this year — the issue is if the deal is a good idea for the Canucks. The new contract will likely take him into his mid 30’s, and unless his name is Jagr or Ovechkin or Crosby, there’s a high likelihood that Miller will not be worth it by then. Will Miller be worth over 10% of the cap during the prime years of Pettersson, Hughes, and Demko? It’s hard to say yes.
Jim Rutherford seems to share the sentiment. “When you sign a player in their 30s, and you’re put in a position [where] you have to sign them long term, what you have to weigh in that decision is how much that player’s going to give you in the first three years compared to the last three years,” Rutherford said on SN650. “You know at some point there’s going to be a decline in the player’s play. But does he give you that much more in the first three years, it offsets the last three years?”
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It’s something to consider, but I digress. It’s a bit too future-looking for a year in review.
In JT Miller this season, the Canucks got the player that the New York Rangers envisioned they were picking back in the first round of the 2011 draft. An offensive dynamo who’s strong and physical, Vancouver wouldn’t have even sniffed meaningful hockey in April if it wasn’t for the superstar-level play that Miller supplied.
A leader, a core presence in the locker room, and a key player for this organization. The Canucks would be a lot worse off without Miller’s explosive bounce-back season.