For the Tampa Bay Lightning, the quest for two straight Stanley Cups did not come easily. Important roster changes took place throughout the 2019-20 season, which included adding key members to their forward corps like Blake Coleman at the trade deadline.
However, what often gets forgotten are the players that were left behind in pursuit of the Stanley Cup. Ultimately, for every great acquisition, there will be someone who was moved out in order to clear cap space or acquire extra draft capital so you can make a big splash.
One such player was J.T. Miller, the big-bodied forward who was the second piece in the deal that brought Ryan McDonagh to the Lightning. In many ways, Miller looked like the perfect player for Tampa Bay back in 2018, as he had an untapped offensive ceiling that he just couldn’t reach with the New York Rangers. Plus, as a 6-foot-1, 215-plus pound forward, he could add some needed size to their somewhat small forward corps.
After joining the Lightning, Miller quickly established himself as a top-six presence, scoring 10 goals and 18 points in just 19 games. He followed that up with eight points in 17 games throughout the 2018 postseason, which was solid but a bit underwhelming given his hot play beforehand. Despite this, then general manager (GM) Steve Yzerman still saw a player to build around, so he gave him a five-year, $5.5 million per year extension.
The following season, Miller found himself up and down the Lightning’s line-up, playing everywhere from the first line to the fourth. While his play wasn’t always consistent, this was less of a showcase of his talent, and more of a sign of just how good Tampa Bay was, when they torched the league for 62 wins and 128 points and had three players score 40-plus goals. To put it simply, Miller needed to be perfect to keep a consistent top-six presence in that line-up, and with his struggles at times, he just couldn’t find a great fit with the franchise.
Now, if the Lightning had gone on a deep playoff run in 2019, then Miller’s play might have been overlooked. As it was, however, they didn’t and new GM Julien BriseBois was forced to look at his lineup and see where changes could be made.
Lightning Trade Miller to Vancouver Canucks
At the 2019 Draft, BriseBois made his first big trade, sending Miller to the Vancouver Canucks for a 2019 third-round pick, a protected 2020 first-rounder, and goaltender Marek Mazanec.
For BriseBois, this trade did a number of things. First, it brought back two prime draft assets for a player that he did not sign to a long-term deal. Second, it cleared $5.5 million in cap space for a team that was nearing a crunch, without Tampa Bay needing to give up anything to do so.
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Given the situation, BriseBois made a savvy move for the Lightning with this trade, as he maximized a valuable asset without having to pay a team to help him clear cap space. As we have seen since, these deals can be pricey to get off the books, especially when a contract is worth $5 million or more.
Vancouver Found an Inconsistent Star in Miller
Despite the high asking price for Miller, the Canucks were confident that he had the toolkit to become a star in the NHL. For his part, he delivered on the promise in his first season. Throughout 2019-20, he put together a career year, posting 27 goals and 72 points in just 69 games. Had everything progressed like normal, he could have broken 30 goals and 80 points for the first time.
Then, after the 2020 Playoffs resumed in the bubble, Miller continued this strong play, with six goals and 18 points in 17 games played as Vancouver surprised the hockey world with a run to Game 7 of the Second Round.
Since that breakout season, Miler has been a consistent offensive presence in Vancouver. While his goalscoring is down, he still posted 46 points in 53 games throughout the 2020-21 season and is currently averaging around a point per game in 2021-22.
So, while things have not been going smoothly for the Canucks, this blame can’t be placed on players like Miller.
Lightning Used Assets To Get a Gamechanger
By clearing $5.5 million in cap space and acquiring an extra first-round draft pick, BriseBois gave himself the ammunition to go out and make a real splash at the 2020 trade deadline. This pick and Nolan Foote were used to acquire Coleman from the New Jersey Devils, a move that helped shape the franchise into a champion.
While Coleman’s offensive output may not have been as flashy as Miller’s throughout 2019-20, he was the perfect depth forward for the franchise. His tenacious play, great penalty killing, and timely scoring gave the Lightning far more production than his $1.8 million contract paid him through 2021.
Also, with the additional cap space cleared by moving Miller’s contract, BriseBois was able to make one more big splash at the 2020 deadline, acquiring Barclay Goodrow from the San Jose Sharks. While this deal had less of a direct connection to the original trade, it’s difficult to know if the Lightning would have been able to afford to take on both contracts if they still had $5.5 million on the books.
Miller’s Trade May Have Been the Final Piece for Lightning
Looking back, the Lightning took a good situation with Miller and turned it into a great one for the franchise. While it’s likely he would have been a productive player with Tampa Bay, BriseBois managed to pull two quality assets out of a player he didn’t re-sign to a long-term deal, which creates a direct link to their back-to-back Stanley Cup victories.
Besides this, had they not cleared Miller’s contract off the books, it would have made their already deep cap-crunch worse, as they would have needed to clear another $5.5 million in order to keep him on the roster. Depending on what happened, this may have made it impossible to extend a budding prospect like Mikhail Sergachev or Anthony Cirelli to their well-earned bridge deals.
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However, it’s never easy being a player who gets traded from a team right before they go out and do great things. Despite this, Miller has kept his head up and has been a productive player for the Canucks. As the franchise looks to rebuild from their recent struggles, he will likely be a centerpiece whose production on the ice will be a key factor to Vancouver turning things around.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.