In Extending Miller, Canucks Keep Star but Questions About Vision Re-Emerge

One upon a time, the idea of signing your late-twenties leading scorer to a long-term contract was an absolute no-brainer in NHL circles. After all, why would you want to lose your best player in his prime? In 2022, however, philosophies have changed. For one, we see prime age as occurring at a younger age than we used to. But more importantly, the presence of a hard salary cap in the league has required a lot more delicacy from teams as they make decisions that could significantly alter the course of the years ahead.

This brings us all to JT Miller, who signed a seven-year, $56 million extension ($8 million AAV) with the Vancouver Canucks over the weekend. Could there really be a downside to this, given the talent of the player and the fact that you’re keeping him for the long haul? In my eyes, it’s more complicated than what meets the eye, and may not have been the wisest decision for the Canucks to make in their current state.

The Player

Let’s start with the obvious caveat to any concern here – JT Miller has emerged to become a very, very good hockey player. In 2021/22, the 29-year-old had the best season of his career by just about every traditional metric, scoring 32 goals and adding a whopping 67 assists for 99 points in 80 games, just missing the century mark but with a couple of games to spare. These totals tied him for the team lead in goals, gave him a seven-helper lead in the assist category, and led to a massive 31-point lead over the next-best skaters on the Canucks roster (Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson). He led all Vancouver forwards in average ice time, and he even threw the body around more than any Canuck besides Luke Schenn, with 172 hits being his most since his first full season.

Miller felt primed for a huge breakout at some point given his 118 points in 122 games in his first two years north of the border, but last year vaulted him into superstardom. Miller received end-of-season All Star votes, he finished 14th in Hart Trophy (MVP) voting, and even had Selke Trophy consideration for defensive play. His shot metrics were even complimentary to match, with Vancouver averaging about 52% of the shot attempts with him on the ice, a near 4% improvement on their rate with him on the bench.

The career trajectory that Miller has followed makes him feel pretty unique; someone you can imagine as still being a 23 or 24 year old young star in the league due to the explosiveness of his breakout, while also feeling like a mid-30s talent due to to what’s felt like three distinct careers with the Rangers, Lightning, and Canucks. He’s quick, he’s energetic, he shows tremendous grit, and he’s by all accounts one of the most vocal people in the locker room. No matter where the conversation goes, he’s a player that Canucks fans will be thrilled to keep watching in the immediate future. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t alarm bells on the individual end.

The most obvious concern is, of course, age. While Miller often feels younger, and 29 heading towards 30 isn’t ancient territory, 38 is decidedly closer to being so and that’s where the extension, which doesn’t kick in until next year, actually takes him. Generally speaking, players hit their athletic prime at around 23-24, sustain success for much of the rest of their 20s, and then taper off, with only the best of the best still being highly impactful late into their 30s. While Miller’s counting stats go against that grain, exploding from 26-28, digging into his 5-on-5 point production rates suggests that he’s not as much of an outlier as he seems at first glance. Miller’s leap appears to have started at Age 22, where his 5v5 points-per-hour leaped to 1.90, which isn’t quite equal to his rate in Vancouver (2.31) but also came with less offensive opportunity. Miller is likely to have a pretty normal curve from the talent end, but the bigger concern comes with one of his strengths. Physical players like him, with very few exceptions, do wear down faster due to the injuries that their playstyle tends to lead to. To his credit, he’s been exceptionally healthy over the course of his career with all things considered, but it’s still something to keep an eye out for.

I would also be a little curious about the fact that a lot of Miller’s production comes on the powerplay. Being able to score with a man advantage is a positive feature to have, but so much of that can be impacted by systems, and there’s no guarantees that you’ll get that powerplay time in a given game. 5-on-5 excellence is still king in the NHL, as it’s where the majority of the game is played, and while Miller’s 47 points at 5v5 placed him at a very strong 27th seed league-wide last year, that drops down to 46th by per-hour rate. That’s still a legitimate first line, first-or-second option clip – but it’s not quite what finishing 9th in the overall scoring race implies either. What’s more is the fact that this has been a trend for Miller over the course of his career – the reason there is such a gap between his time in New York and his time in Tampa & Vancouver is that he simply was not used as a frequent powerplay option until his first trade. This raises the question of whether or not this is true superstardom from the player, or a tier that’s still excellent, but not transcendent. If that’s the case, it again puts the risk of a less graceful late 30’s into question.

The Team

The interesting thing is, much of what I described above would be easy to shrug off if you were the right team, in the right situation. If Miller ends up being “just” a very good first liner and lower-range star in the coming years while slowly dipping into his later 30s, that would be totally acceptable for a team in regular contention with flexibility in other areas of their balance sheet to have. After all, a good first line player at an $8,000,000 AAV is pretty standard fare for 2022, and as the salary cap ceiling comes out of the COVID-19 woods in the next few years, it’s share of the budget will decline with the player, as that currently-contending team continues to evolve and Miller’s own role slowly diminishes.

Are the Canucks the sort of team that this describes, though? That depends a lot on who you ask, as Vancouver is a pretty contentious market as far as vision goes. Many are very bullish on the roster and have lived in that state of optimism for the better part of a decade now, even as the team made mistake after mistake in it’s construction. Since the team replaced much of their management and coaching staff last fall, though, there’s been some warrant to those feelings. After Bruce Boudreau took over the bench in December, the Canucks went 29-13-9 to close out the season – not enough to get them back into the playoff picture, but good enough for the eighth-best record in the NHL in the span. Their shot metrics at 5-on-5 hovered mostly in the 15th to 17th range in that span, but was still a marked improvement over the bottom-five results they had in that respect in the previous three-year stretch. It also cant be stated enough that, up to this point, the combination of Jim Rutherford as President and Patrik Allvin as General Manager, along with their new-look support staff beneath them, has shown a much better understanding of modern process when making their roster decisions.

All the same, that still doesn’t mean the Canucks are sure-fire contenders in the immediate, and that they’ve got the flexibility to make themselves that in a hurray. Boudreau is a top-end coach and the results they got under him to close out the year are great, but having an increase in skater control move the team only to the middle is probably not enough. Thatcher Demko has proven himself to be one of the few genuinely, consistently great goaltenders in the league, and Vancouver’s #3 rank in save percentage post-coaching change carried them through the winter and spring, but being reliant on your starting netminder is perhaps the biggest risk in the sport.

The books certainly don’t disagree here – Sports Interaction puts the Canucks at +4260 to win the Stanley Cup at the moment, 18th ranked in the league. They have them at +1064 to win the Pacific Division, and while they do like them to make the playoffs, they only sit at -116 there and the line for regular season points sits at just 92.5. By comparison, Demko sits at the sixth-highest odds to win the Vezina Trophy for the league’s top goaltender (+1866), so there’s more confidence in the backbone than there is in the group.

Having guys like Miller, Demko, Quinn Hughes, Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat, and Brock Boeser is a fantastic head start for a team that’s looking to turn themselves around towards greater heights not ever seen in the market. But it only brings you so far, and once you start to dive into the depths of the roster, you can see why they’ve had so much trouble succeeding in recent years. The forward depth, which also includes players like Conor Garland, Nils Hoglander, Ilya Mikheyev, and European free agent signing Andrei Kuzmenko, is intriguing but not reliably in the top class. Their defensive core under Hughes is, to put it lightly, one of the worst in the league, and it’s going to be hard to improve with Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Tyler Myers taking up $7.26 million and $6 million in cap space respectively. Ekman-Larsson, one of the last big trade acquisition of Jim Benning’s management regime, is a particularly tough pill to swallow, with five years still remaining on his deal and an unlikeliness to bounce back to his prime at 31 years old. If Demko were to get hurt, the fate of the team between the pipes lies in journeyman Spencer Martin, who has nine NHL games to his name at 27 years old.

To make matters worse, the Canucks are currently capped out for the this season, with Long-Term Injured Reserve perhaps helpful on the fringes but still leaving the team unable to upgrade. Not much of this goes away next year, either, which makes for both concern for the ability to push the team over the top if they do prove to be competitive, and uncertainty over how they’ll be able to keep Kuzmenko if he succeeds in his rookie year – and not to mention, captain Bo Horvat, who had a lesser, but similar breakout year to Miller last season and has unrestricted free agency awaiting him in the summer.

Needless to say, it’s a very tight squeeze for a team that has promise, but hasn’t defined itself as a true competitor. This puts into question where the value is for the Canucks in a long-term deal where you reap the early benefits and take the late blows. Anything can happen come the playoffs, but from a rational standpoint, the Miller extension doesn’t seem to fit the window. There’s a reason why he was believed by many to be a player that the Canucks would trade at the draft, or after free agency, or even at this upcoming trade deadline, with the idea being to keep that allotted space for players like Horvat & Kuzmenko, and ideally return some younger, cost-controlled depth to offset some of the more destructive contracts on the roster.

Now, Vancouver will have to hope they can convince other teams to buy in on their excess – players like Ekman-Larsson, Myers, Tucker Poolman, and Tanner Pearson – and hope to get enough space to build a layer around the core to compete as soon as possible. Is it possible? Sure, but it’s a very steep bet, to the point where it makes you wonder if the new mangement team’s vision is truly a night-and-day difference to the one prior, or just an incremental improvement. Don’t get me wrong, improvement is great – but if you believe in the younger pieces of the team’s core, you’re likely hoping for a more aggressive shift rather than a traditional one.

What Now?

With all of the above stated, it’s not like the Vancouver has completely backed themselves into a ticking time bomb, nor have they committed themselves to a bad player. There are still ways to navigate through managing this group into it’s next phase, and Miller is still an excellent player who gives them options.

For one, it’s not impossible that this relationship still remains on a shorter timeline than the next eight years. While Miller got his no-movement clause secured, he didn’t have it back-dated into the last year of his current $5.25 million / year deal – meaning that theoretically, Vancouver still has until the summer to move him without his say if the team doesn’t have the same success rate as they had in the back half of last year. They also have some ways out in the back half should they stay the course for now. The deal is front-loaded in terms of cash payments, which will make him more alluring to lower-budget teams in later seasons. The no-move includes a modified no-trade in years five to seven, meaning Vancouver will have 17 allowed teams to move him to should they decide to trade him. They also minimized the amount of signing bonuses that Miller will make in years four to seven, allowing for the nuclear option of a buyout to be at least a possibility.

As well, they could now decide to trade out Horvat instead – while moving your captain would be an emotional blow to the room and something likely wouldn’t do unless the team stumbles out of the gate, he’s likely to also carry a strong trade return, and by all accounts, Miller almost gives you a perfect replacement for the letter if that’s the direction you go. Ideally at this point, you find a way to shed your worst deals, keep both, and then move aggressively for depth – but if you can’t, you still have a moveable asset to work with. It would also be a clear marking point in the shift to a new era of the Canucks, if they decided to move the team’s longest-tenured player, who played through the entirety of the previous era.

Overall, this is the definition of a mixed feelings deal. The Canucks get the opportunity to keep a fantastic player with your organization for the foreseeable future, at a price that makes sense for the time being. On the other hand, the team might not be in the best situation to take advantage of the deal right now, and may have gained more long-term in moving on from him. There’s a not-insignificant air of shortsightedness here, but it’s at least involving a star talent rather than replaceable depth like in years past. From a viewing perspective, you have to love keeping a talent like this if you’re a Canucks fan; from a building perspective, well, you really need to hope that Rutherford and Allvin have a few other tricks up their sleeve, in order to make this decision make sense.