VANCOUVER – J.T. Miller is not only the best Canucks forward this season, he is having the best season in Vancouver since Daniel Sedin followed his brother Henrik as the National Hockey League’s scoring champion in 2011.
Miller had another virtuoso performance on Wednesday, scoring a huge goal single-handedly and setting up three others as the streaking Canucks halted the Montreal Canadiens’ momentum with a 5-3 win at Rogers Arena.
Miller was easily the game’s best player, matching a career-high with four points, and driving the Canucks to their eighth win in 10 games and within three points of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
In his last 12 games, Miller has eight goals and 15 assists and, with 24 games remaining, is on pace for 96 points.
No Canuck has been close to that number since Danny Sedin won the Art Ross Trophy 11 years ago with 104 points in 82 games. Miller missed two games in January while in COVID protocol.
This is the best he has played, and what makes it especially remarkable is that Miller has found this world-class level while conjecture rages daily about his future with the Canucks, who have him under contract at a bargain of $5.25 million through the end of next season.
The trade talk, real or imagined, is driven by the idea that the 29-year-old will be too old and too expensive to fit the Canucks on his next contract, and that a team that has missed the playoffs in five of the last six years should load up on future talent by ransoming Miller at his peak.
“They’re all rumours to begin with, so I don’t really look into it,” Miller told reporters Wednesday morning. “We’re just going about our business. I don’t think I’m getting traded. I never thought I was getting traded. I mean. . . everybody’s speculating. So, I mean, I never looked into that and considered that they were even trying to trade me to begin with.”
The Canucks’ three-month chase for a playoff spot remains a longshot, but they’ll have no chance if they sell Miller ahead of the March 21 trading deadline.
Against the Canadiens, Miller drew assists on goals by Travis Hamonic and Brock Boeser, before making the play of the game to break a 2-2 tie at 3:54 of the third period. Miller knocked the puck away from Jeff Petry just outside the Montreal blue line, burst forward on a partial breakaway and as he was being closed down lasered a wrist shot from the top of the faceoff circle past the glove of goalie Sam Montembeault and into the top corner.
It was a textbook example of a great player conjuring a great play to decide a game.
Miller then dropped the puck to Elias Pettersson on the fourth goal and watched the Canuck weave at high speed past three Canadiens before also beating Montembeault with a glove-side wrist shot.
Miller’s quad landed him in the top 10 in NHL scoring. And consider the company he passed: Steven Stamkos, Patrick Kane, Kyle Connor, Cale Makar and Matthew Tkachuk. With 67 points in 56 games, Miller is tied for ninth with Mikko Rantanen.
CANUCKS GIVE GOALIE A BREAK
Canuck starter Thatcher Demko, the only Canuck who is having a season as good as Miller’s, played for the 13th straight game – 11 of them starts. He was outplayed early by Montembeault, but still earned his sixth straight win as Vancouver played well enough that it didn’t need its MVP goalie to be brilliant.
Demko is now third in the NHL in time-on-ice among goalies. The Canucks have 24 games remaining and need to win the great majority of them to have a chance at pulling off their playoff race miracle.
How can Demko survive?
“We’ll have mandatory rests,” Boudreau said before the game. “When I went to Anaheim (to coach in 2011), we played (Jonas) Hiller 31 straight games, and after about 12, we stopped practising him. We were playing every second day anyway. I think something like that could probably happen with (Demko).
“I’ve never had a goalie that wants to put in as much work as he does. I mean, to come out every morning half an hour before (practice), it’s unprecedented for me.”
Amid all the flashier Canucks on top of their game Wednesday, stay-at-home defenceman Luke Schenn quietly had one of his best nights. He logged only 16:26 of ice time, but 4:08 was with a shorthanded unit that killed all four Montreal power plays. Schenn had three shots on net, seven attempts, led the Canucks with six hits and three blocks, and posted a Corsi-for of 64.7 per cent and expected goals of 78.4.
No wonder Schenn is a key depth piece that some teams will be trying to convince the Canucks to part with before the March 21 deadline.
TOO MANY LEADERS?
Only in Vancouver could the positive of Miller’s evolution as a leader on the Canucks be viewed by some as a negative. Like, what does this mean for captain Bo Horvat and who’s going to tell him he should hand over the ‘C’ to his teammate?
The development in Miller’s leadership actually helps Horvat, who felt more than most the loss from the Canucks leadership group before last season of Chris Tanev and Jacob Markstrom and the indefinite (and likely permanent) absence of COVID long-hauler Brandon Sutter.
In some respects, Canuck leadership has been in transition since the Sedins retired in 2018. Horvat, 26, was named Henrik’s successor as captain a year later and, like his mentor, has led by example since then.
Miller has been a terrific player since arriving in Vancouver by trade in 2019. But he has worked to channel his fierce emotions more positively, limiting what even last season were frequent displays of overt frustration, and becoming a supportive and compelling leader for many of the Canucks’ young players.
The extent of Miller’s impact was reflected in coach Boudreau’s praise last weekend that the American centre is “our leader offensively, and he’s our leader as a spokesperson.”
The words had barely tumbled out of Boudreau’s mouth, as most words do from the honest, folksy coach, when they were parsed as an indictment of Horvat, who has struggled at times this season but is still producing one goal and two points every three games while continuing his heavy lifting defensively. Horvat scored an empty-netter Wednesday, had an assist and went 11-6 on faceoffs.
Asked after the morning skate about Miller’s leadership, Horvat said: “Guys listen to him and guys respect him and he’s obviously, you know, been one of our best if not our best players this year. So (teammates) are going to listen to what he has to say. He’s been on winning teams before so he knows what it takes to win. For me to have a voice like that, an extra voice, definitely helps. Losing Tanny and Marky and those guys. . . and obviously Brandon being hurt, you need guys like that to step up and say things at different times, and he does that.”
The only way the evolution of Miller is a problem for Horvat is if either is envious of the other or they don’t get along. Neither is the case. They’re friends. The Canucks’ only leadership problem is they don’t have enough players like Horvat and Miller.