Is J.T. Miller Worth the Canucks’ 2020 First-Round Draft Pick?

Half of you have already decided on “no, he isn’t” as your answer, but you may be wrong. In the brief time J.T. Miller has been with the Vancouver Canucks, he has been more than noticeable on the ice. In four preseason games this year, the former Tampa Bay Lightning forward has put up four points.

Four preseason points are not going to win back the doubters and it doesn’t mean the Canucks are going to score at will throughout the year, but it is certainly a good sign.

Joe Pavelski, Thatcher Demko
Former San Jose Shark Joe Pavelski scores on Vancouver Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

During the 2018-19 preseason, the Canucks scored just 10 times in 7 games. What is even more humiliating is that the team only had one game where they managed to score more than two goals — that came in a shootout victory over the Los Angeles Kings on Sep. 24 of last year.

For comparison, the Canucks have scored 30 goals this preseason — over the course of eight games — a dramatic improvement in just one extra game.

So is it reasonable to get excited now? Of course.

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Assuming that the goal-scoring spills over into the regular season, the Canucks will be much improved compared to last year. Adam Gaudette seems to be firing on all cylinders, Elias Pettersson looks to be in mid-season form already and Quinn Hughes is skating with such confidence that we wonder if he’s really just 19 years old.

Instant Chemistry — Just Add Miller

We’ve already heavily dissected the needs that Canucks’ management had to address in the offseason and, in all honesty, they’ve done a pretty great job when it comes to plugging holes in the lineup.

General manager Jim Benning upgraded the physicality of the team by signing former Carolina Hurricane and Calgary Flame Micheal Ferland to a multi-year deal. The two-time, 40-point winger will likely find himself playing on the first line with Pettersson and Brock Boeser.

The most important acquisition of the summer, though? J.T. Miller.

The versatile forward will serve as reinforcements for a Canucks’ top-six forward group that was — up until this season — sorely lacking bonafide top-tier players.

J.T. Miller, Tampa Bay Lightning
Former Tampa Bay Lightning forward J.T. Miller looks to be the solution for the Canucks’ top-six forward group. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Canucks’ center Bo Horvat played with a plethora of wingers during the 2018-19 season and never had consistent linemates. While this failed to impact his points total (61), the team was playing with two-thirds of a top-six forward group. With the addition of someone like Miller, Horvat should easily surpass the number of points he put up last season.

With a bit of blood, sweat and tears it would be realistic to see the future captain put up 30-plus goals and 70-plus points with Miller at his side.

As for Miller? Despite having multiple 20-goal seasons under his belt, he hasn’t had a full 82-game season in any team’s top-six forward group — but he will in Vancouver. He has the ability to play either wing or centre a line.

More time on ice (TOI) tends to lead to more points if you’re a good enough player. Miller certainly is a good enough player, as indicated by the 47 points he registered while splitting time between the second, third and fourth line with the Lightning last season.

While he enjoyed stints with Steven Stamkos, many of his points came playing alongside guys like Alex Killorn and Adam Erne. While they are good hockey players, they are not stars.

To put it simply: He hasn’t had the opportunity to capitalize on an extended stretch with a player of Horvat’s calibre. If the Palestine, Ohio native can score 13 goals and add 34 assists playing with “good” linemates, what sort of damage will he do with a “very good” centre? Expect around 20 goals and 35 assists from the 218-pound jack-of-all-trades.

Despite the regular season still being a few days away, Horvat and Miller have already shown some excellent chemistry in the games they have played together and the fans have been loving it. Check out the give-and-go followed by a no-look pass from Miller that finds an open Horvat for a pretty goal:

But at What Cost?

Miller looks promising. That is a good thing, of course. It is also worth noting that the 2020 NHL Draft is expected to be the most talent-filled draft in recent memory. Alexis Lafrenière headlines as the consensus first-overall pick but from the second-pick onward it is anyone’s guess as to who goes next.

That being said, the Canucks have essentially put their 2020 first-round pick down as collateral for the services of Miller, and due to the nature of the pick — it is conditional — the team might forfeit arguably their most valuable draft pick in team history. It sounds like a dramatic overstatement, but it really isn’t.

If the Canucks make the playoffs at the end of the 2019-20 NHL season, Tampa Bay will inherit the draft pick, meaning the pick will be no higher than the 16th-overall pick.

If Vancouver ends up missing the playoffs — god forbid — then the draft pick becomes a 2021 first-round selection instead.

Considering the fact that between 2000 and 2009 roughly 80% of first-round draft picks went on to enjoy fruitful NHL careers as low-level players at the very least, it is almost a sure thing that the Canucks traded away a potential NHL-calibre player to acquire Miller’s services from the Lightning.

But how many NHL-calibre players can effectively play any of the three forward positions? How many players seamlessly move up and down the lineup and find success in almost any situation and with any linemates? Miller checks those boxes.

Vancouver Canucks Bo Horvat Josh Teves J.T. Miller
Vancouver Canucks forward Bo Horvat celebrates with defenseman Josh Teves and forward J.T. Miller (Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports)

Even though next year’s draft is stacked with talent, it isn’t a guarantee that your selection in the draft becomes a reliable top-six presence, and Miller is in his prime right now and fills a need in the scoring department.

Upgraded offensive potency was at the top of Benning’s list when the offseason commenced, and acquiring a 26-year-old, 40-50 point player adds more strength and versatility to an already rapidly improving forward group.

To sweeten the deal even more, in a situation where the Canucks see an injury to either one of Pettersson or Horvat, Miller has the ability to step up and centre a line himself and drive the offence. His playing style is eerily similar to Horvat’s, albeit slightly less productive points-wise.

The Verdict

While the price may have seemed steep at the time, Miller has already shown flashes of the offensive prowess that fans and management alike were hoping to see. He has meshed well with Horvat almost immediately and if the duo continues to put up points and build confidence as linemates, the Canucks will have two complete top lines for the first time in years.

J.T. Miller Lightning
Former Tampa Bay Lightning center J.T. Miller (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

It is always a risky decision to let go of a high draft pick — really any draft pick — but the Canucks’ brass is swinging for the fences this year and they just might have hit a home run. Right now it looks like Miller was worth what it cost the Canucks, and we’re hoping that the deal will only continue to look even better as the season progresses.

The young core in Vancouver needed a piece to help fill a void in their game, and they found it in Miller.