The Vancouver Canucks have arguably had two distinct MVPs this season: J.T. Miller and Thatcher Demko. Quinn Hughes has been great too, so he probably deserves an honourable mention with his four goals and 45 points in 54 games, but it’s been largely the two pillars, one in goal and one up front that have been this season’s Hart Trophy candidates for the Canucks.
Except only one can ultimately win it. Let’s break it down and name the 2021-22 season’s most valuable player to this point.
The Case For J.T. Miller
Since coming over from the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2019, Miller has been nothing short of spectacular for the Canucks. As of this writing, he has 65 goals and 185 points in less than three seasons. To put that in perspective, he had 72 goals and 172 points in six seasons with the New York Rangers to begin his career in the NHL.
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Miller has turned a corner in his development at nearly 29 years old (March 14 is his birthday) and has become a de facto first-line center in the NHL capable of doing everything short of strapping on the goalie pads. From effectively playing both center and the wing and spending time on both special teams to scoring overtime winners and bringing a fiery leadership style to the dressing room, he can seemingly do it all.
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When Miller put together a career-high 27 goals and 72 points during the 2019-20 season, you would be forgiven if you thought that was a flash in the pan. Yet, he followed it up with another solid season (15 goals and 46 points in 53 games) in 2020-21 amidst a COVID-19 pandemic that ravaged the Canucks’ locker room.
Now, in a campaign filled with rumours about his imminent departure, Miller has found yet another gear (if that’s possible). In only three games more than last season and 13 games away from the amount he played during his career year, he has 23 goals and 67 points in 56 games. If he keeps up the pace, he could shatter his career-high and hit 96 points, which would be the most a Canuck has posted since Daniel Sedin recorded his career-best of 104 back in 2010-11.
Miller could conceivably hit 30 goals for the first time and do on the back of a consistent effort that includes five point streaks of three games or more and his current one where he has at least a point in ten straight. He also hasn’t gone more than three games without a point and has recorded 18 multi-point games. The Canucks have not seen those types of numbers since the era of the Sedins over a decade ago. That’s how amazing his season has been.
In addition to his points, Miller is stepping up when the game matters the most. Of his five game-winners, three of them have come in overtime with the game on the line. He has also shown the ability to take matters into his own hands and will his team to a win, the latest coming on Wednesday against the Montreal Canadiens when he stripped the puck from Jeff Petry and scored on a laser of a wrist shot past Sam Montembeault.
If the Canucks are going to make the playoffs and do anything there, Miller will have to continue to be front and center. With what he has done so far, it’s hard to imagine him not being there. Without him and his 67 points, they would likely be struggling to find offence and thus toiling at the bottom of the standings. If Jim Rutherford and Patrik Allvin are smart, they would lock him up to a long-term deal rather than trade him, regardless of the massive return he might muster. Like Kevin Bieksa said on a recent Hockey Night in Canada broadcast, “players like (him) do not grow on trees.”
The Case For Thatcher Demko
If Miller is the driver of the offence, Demko is the wall that keeps the other cars at bay. Like Jacob Markstrom before him, he has been the reason the Canucks haven’t been driven out of the building on some nights. The workhorse from San Diego, California has started a career-high 44 games so far and has seen the third-most shots behind Connor Hellebuyck and Juuse Saros, yet he has a .917 save percentage (SV%) to show for it.
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Demko’s numbers aren’t Vezina Trophy calibre like Igor Shesterkin (1.99 GAA and .942 SV%), but he’s been just as valuable for the Canucks as Shesterkin has been for the Rangers. Considering Demko has faced the second-most high-danger shots behind Hellebuyck and saved 85 percent of them, I think his overall stats look pretty good.
Since his breakout “Bubble Demko” performance against the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2020 Playoffs, Demko has transitioned from the goaltender of the future to the goaltender of the present. At just 26 years old, the best is yet to come as he continues to develop into a top-notch superstar goalie. He’s already proven capable of handling the load and being the man when needed. Several wins this season have been a direct result of his brilliance as he’s made jaw-dropping stops from two-pad stacks to around-the-world glove saves in the style of Kirk McLean of the 90s.
I’ve been blessed with [coaching] some good, young goalies, but he might be the best.Bruce Boudreau on Thatcher Demko
If not for the 2022 All-Star, I’m not sure where the Canucks would be. Just look at the Edmonton Oilers, who have a plethora of scoring talent without the benefit of good goaltending. They would likely be at the bottom struggling to stay above water with the Canadiens and Arizona Coyotes.
The Verdict: Slight Edge to Demko
Like I said, if not for Demko’s beyond solid presence in the crease, the Canucks would be struggling to find wins. Goaltending is one of the most important positions in the game of hockey. Without it, teams usually have a hard time winning games. Demko has provided the Canucks with elite-level goaltending from day one of the season. Except for maybe a couple of hiccups where he looked ordinary, he has done everything expected of him as a starter in the NHL.
Yes, without Miller, the Canucks would struggle too, but without Demko, they would struggle even more. That’s why he is my pick for MVP so far, but only by a slight margin. If there was the option for co-MVPs, they would definitely share the award because without the star duo (or trio, if you include Hughes), the Canucks would be up the creek without a paddle at this point in the season.
Stats were taken from Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference and NHL.com