Canucks blown away by J.T. Miller’s off-ice impact

J.T. Miller, right, has made a huge difference on and off the ice. (Darryl Dyck/CP) (Jason Franson/CP)

VANCOUVER – As well as he played this season – and J.T. Miller has never been better in the National Hockey League – the Vancouver Canucks were even more impressed by what the winger did off the ice.

On Wednesday, he was still doing it.

More than three weeks into the NHL shutdown amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Canucks made Miller the first player available to Vancouver media in a video conference.

“The whole situation, that it’s even happening, is the part to me that I still can’t believe,” Miller told reporters from his North Shore home, across the water from Vancouver. “It feels like the world has shut down for X-amount of time. It’s just a very weird thing. Months or years down the road when we all look back, you just hope it doesn’t affect as many people as it has the potential to.”

Earlier, the 27-year-old from Pittsburgh said: “I’ve been lucky. I don’t think my family back home has been impacted too much. That being said, I’m definitely conscious of all the people that are being affected. . . and everything the healthcare workers are doing. It’s really special. It’s something that definitely doesn’t go unnoticed in my household. Obviously, it’s life-changing stuff.”

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

It has been a career-changing year for Miller, whom the Canucks acquired last June in a trade from the Tampa Bay Lightning for first- and third-round draft picks. That price divided the Vancouver fan base, but the winger has proved a bargain.

After moving across the continent with his wife, Natalie, their two young daughters and two dogs, playing for the first time in Canada and the far-flung Western Conference, Miller was having easily the best season of his eight-year career when the NHL halted for COVID-19 on March 12.

Skating on a line with last season’s rookie of the year, Elias Pettersson, Miller blasted through his previous offensive bests with 27 goals and 45 assists in 69 games, which put him 17th in NHL scoring. He led Pettersson by six points.

Miller was also second in the league with a 59.2 per cent faceoff win rate, had a 53.6 shots-for percentage, and a dominant 61.5 per cent share of even-strength goals.

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J.T. Miller talks about his first season playing in Vancouver
April 01 2020

“But it’s the stuff you don’t see where I think he had the biggest impact on our group,” general manager Jim Benning said Wednesday. “We always knew what he could do on the ice, his ability to hang on to the puck, to protect the puck and make plays with the puck. He’s got a great release on his shot; I wish he would use his shot more. But I don’t think his on-ice stuff surprised us.

“His leadership in the room, his willingness to try to help teach the young players. . . I think if we went through all the players in our group, our young players, J.T. had a hand in all of them improving this year.

“He played with Petey and Boes (Brock Boeser), and would be on the bench with those guys, working with them. But also a guy like Jake Virtanen. . . J.T. would work with Jake and I think he had a positive effect on Jake’s game improving.”

Miller reiterated Wednesday that he learned by watching great players and leaders when he was with the Lightning and, for more than five seasons, the New York Rangers.

“I just think the timing was right,” he said of his evolution as a leader. “I think if you play the right way, that sends the best message. I’ve really tried to focus on that. From when I was 19 until now, I’ve played on some teams with guys that were unbelievable leaders and have been through so much in their careers that I just kind of stayed out of the way and tried to be a sponge. There’s still plenty I need to learn in that regard. But at the same time, I want to win really badly and I want to make that the No. 1 priority with a lot of the younger guys.

“When you’re young, it’s hard to put aside your personal success or personal business for the better half of the team. When you do put a team-first mentality into your game plan and everybody buys into it, the will to win always seems to go up. And when we play like that, we’ve been a very effective team.”

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The Canucks are ground zero for the debate about who qualifies for the playoffs if the NHL eventually finishes its season.

At 36-27-6, Vancouver is tied for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference but loses on a tiebreaker with the Nashville Predators, who have one more regulation win. But on winning percentage, the Canucks are ahead of both the Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets, who have played more games than Vancouver.

“I want a fair season,” Miller said. “I think that’s all I kind of really need to say about it. I don’t have any hypothetical playoff formats for you. I want everyone to be safe and I want everyone to stay injury-free. I want it to be fair, however that shakes out.”

Miller said no one in the NHL wants to play into August, “but if that’s what they decide to do. . . I think you have to have the mindset of just being ready to go. No matter what time of the year, you have to understand and embrace the situation that’s at hand.”

He claimed he hasn’t thought much about his scoring totals, which with 13 games left on the schedule were already well above his previous highs of 23 goals, 35 assists and 58 points.

“A lot of points, yes,” he said, “but I’m confident in my abilities to have another good season and potentially do it again.”

He may have to.

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