The Go-To Guy: Analyzing J.T. Miller’s bounce-back season

The 2019 NHL Entry Draft was an eventful one for the Vancouver Canucks. On top of hosting the festivities, the Canucks went into this draft with a goal: Get faster, bigger, and more tenacious.

They exited the first round with Vasily Podkolzin (10th overall), who still hasn’t found his footing in the NHL; and I think time may be running out for the young Russian power forward to make a meaningful impact at the NHL level.

But the second round was where Vancouver really did themselves some good; not only drafting Nils Höglander with the 40th pick in the draft, but reports began to circulate about a potential trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Lightning had just come off being swept by the eighth seed Columbus Blue Jackets, after having the greatest regular season in NHL history (prior to last season’s Boston Bruins). They were tight against the salary cap and needed to unload some assets.

One of those assets was left winger, J.T. Miller.

Miller, who was 26 at the time of the trade, had been a solid top six-caliber point producer with the Lightning, and was involved in the blockbuster deal that also involved Ryan McDonaugh heading to Tampa alongside him just one year prior.

So, the Canucks trade was as follows:

TBL gets: 2020 1st round pick, Marek Mazanec (G), 2019 3rd round pick.

VAN gets: J.T. Miller (LW/C). 

At face value, this seemed like a bit of an overpay when the announcement broke. Miller only had a career-high of 58 points prior to the trade, so trading a first rounder for a 2nd line scoring-rate forward wasn’t all that great from a value perspective, especially when you consider how there wasn’t even an attempt to squeeze out any sort of surplus value from Vancouver’s perspective. Tampa were hard-pressed against the cap, for crying out loud!

With all that said, this is what you typically see from Canucks fans nowadays:

Miller has become an absolute weapon for the Canucks. Heck, he’s ranked 10th in points league-wide since his arrival in Vancouver. This season has been his best to date, with 21 goals and 67 points through 49 games so far.

Even though he’s always been an efficient scorer in his time here, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the American-born forward. The 2022-23 season was a disaster for most parties involved in Vancouver, and Miller was typically in the spotlight for reasons that weren’t always entirely on him. Even with the scrutiny and occasional poor play, he still amassed 82 points in 81 games.

When he’s not playing well, he still produces.

That’s kind of become Miller’s mantra: He may not be a consistently dominant force every shift, or even every game, but he will find a way to rack up points regardless. Now that the Canucks are actually, you know, winning hockey games, Miller hasn’t been under the microscope. If he makes a mistake, who cares; he’ll probably make up for it later in the game.

J.T. Miller has always been a great hockey player, but he’s now a part of a winning formula, and there’s a few reasons as to why.

Playing winning hockey by fitting into a system

Canucks management clearly believes in Miller long-term, even if he’s set to turn 31 this year. How do I know that? Well, he was signed to a 7-year, $56-million contract ($8-million AAV) in the summer of 2022. It was a deal that I was skeptical of at the time; and while I still worry about the potential long-term ramifications, Miller has outperformed that $8-million price tag this season.

When Rick Tocchet was brought in as head coach, many in the industry said that this move was, in part, to help stabilize Miller’s game. Tocchet got everyone in that room to buy in to his system, and Miller is no different.

Miller would often be picked a part by the Vancouver market for his lack of effort away from the puck. He’d be caught cheating for offence, waiting for plays to come to him instead of forcing opponent’s to make mistakes; but not this year.

Tocchet’s system has proven to be near-unbreakable, as the Canucks are in the upper-upper-half of the league in terms of their defensive performance; a stark contrast from what we’re used to in this market. No one is cheating for chances, because why should they? If you play the right way, you’ll be rewarded.

Not only is Miller being rewarded, he’s fully deserving of his uptick in production.

Yes, he’s shooting 21% (12.7% at 5v5), but Miller has always been a percentage driver: It’s just part of his mantra, and only drives this point home even further. If the top guys buy in to playing the right way, they’ll still get rewarded, and Miller has done just that.

The smartest power play presence on the team

Dare I say it: J.T. Miller is the single-best power play driver this team has had since the Sedins.

I think there’s an argument to be made that he’s even better. I’m dead serious. When the Canucks get a power play opportunity, I’m not watching for Elias Pettersson or Quinn Hughes, I’m watching for Miller, dammit!

Miller has good hockey sense, that’s not up for debate, but he isn’t a particularly good 5v5 play-driver. He’s only generated 6.7 expected goals at 5v5 (per, with only 29 of his 67 points coming at even-strength.

But this just continues what I’ve been saying about his mantra.

Percentage. Driver.

All of this is to point out just how effective Miller is on the power play, specifically when deployed on the left flank.

Typically, the best power play’s have guys flanking on their off-hand side as one-timer options; Tampa Bay being a great example:

Paul (net-front)
Stamkos (right-handed) – Point (bumper) – Kucherov (left-handed)
Hedman (point)

The Canucks opt to use both of their righties (Lindholm and Boeser) at the net-front and bumper positions, leaving the three main lefties manning the top of the zone:

Boeser (net-front)
Miller (left-handed) – Lindholm (bumper) – Pettersson (left-handed)
Hughes (point)

Vancouver’s first unit tends to rotate a lot when they have possession, but this is the alignment that many of us have become accustomed to this season. Pettersson is typically the main one-timer option, so what does Miller do on the left flank?

Miller uses a wind-up tactic that is so incredibly intelligent; occasionally leaving zone for a brief instance to build-up speed.

This goal vs the Edmonton Oilers is a perfect example of Miller’s dominance from the left flank:

He quickly turns from the blueline, Hughes finds him with time and space, and since he doubles as both a shooting threat and an elite passer, no one on the Oilers knows what he’s about to do. Miller shoots the puck as if it had been badmouthing his family just moments prior, labeling the top corner. We see this from him on a nightly basis, even if it doesn’t amount to a goal or assist (a rare sight).

Should there still be concern over the long-term deal? Sure, but one thing is for sure: J.T. Miller is a damn good hockey player for the Vancouver Canucks. He won’t be the guy driving the offence at 5v5, but his genius-level IQ on the power play can make up for his shortcomings.

A top 10 scorer, elite playmaker, and power play weapon, J.T. Miller has some great hockey left in him, and I hope it’s for a long time.

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