Canucks make bold J.T. Miller trade, but questions remain on defence

Jim Benning talks about acquiring J.T. Miller and how he improves the Vancouver Canucks for next season.

VANCOUVER – Saturday’s bold trade for J.T. Miller reflects the urgency within the Vancouver Canucks to push for the playoffs next season, as well as a new stage in the National Hockey League team’s evolution.

After numerous reports that the Canucks were chasing a defenceman, general manager Jim Benning instead addressed his other critical need Saturday and acquired Miller from the Tampa Bay Lightning to play a top-six forward role in Vancouver.

A draft devotee, Benning sent to the Lightning a third-round pick on Saturday plus a conditional first-round pick in one of the next two years. If the Canucks miss the playoffs in 2020, during their 50th anniversary in the NHL, the first-rounder is moved to 2021.

If the Canucks miss the playoffs both years, the trade may not look very good. But Benning won’t have to worry about optics because he probably won’t still be GM unless Vancouver makes it back into the Stanley Cup tournament.

“J.T. Miller was a guy we targeted that we felt could come in and help our group,” Benning said after selecting eight prospects on Day 2 of the entry draft at Rogers Arena. “It’s a fair price to pay for a young — relatively young — player that fits in with what we’re trying to do. He’s on a good contract. He plays with an edge, he’s got skill. He’s a guy that we feel is going to really help make the team better and help with the development of our younger players.”

There’s little doubt that Miller will help the Canucks get closer. He is a versatile, 26-year-old power forward with enough skill to average 20 goals and 51 points over the past four seasons with the Lightning and New York Rangers.

The debate is whether he is worth the price of a first-round pick. What might that development hole look like down the road?

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The Canucks said Miller was travelling on Saturday but released this statement from the American: “I can’t wait to be part of this team. I love the way they play; there’s so much good, young talent. Vancouver has always been my favourite NHL city and my family and I really look forward to this new experience.”

Miller will play wing for the Canucks, partnering with either Elias Pettersson or Bo Horvat. His salary cost is reasonable: $21-million over the next four seasons, which is less than what Benning would have to pay in free agency for a comparable forward.

But there are more forwards than defencemen available in free agency on July 1, which still puts pressure on Benning to find a top-four blueliner in trade. Oddly, none of Vancouver’s nine draft picks this weekend were defencemen.

Benning noted that the Canucks deepened that position last spring, signing college free agents Brogan Rafferty and Josh Teves, as well as undrafted junior Mitch Eliot.

After feverish speculation Friday that the Canucks were close to acquiring Colorado Avalanche defenceman Tyson Barrie, that story went quiet on Saturday. The Avalanche is believed to be getting offers better than the one pitched by the Canucks.

Vancouver wasn’t seriously in on the bidding for polarizing Nashville Predator defenceman P.K. Subban, who was traded with his $9-million cap hit to the New Jersey Devils for a pair of second-round picks and a couple of second-tier prospects.

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The conditional first-round pick was one of the few expendable assets Benning possessed, and spending it on Miller may make it harder to trade for a good defenceman.

The Canucks are expected to pursue unrestricted free agents Tyler Myers and Jake Gardiner next week, but their cost could be prohibitive.

“This next week, going into free agency, I think we’re going to see more trades happen,” Benning said. “I know there was a lot of talk leading up the draft, and not a lot happened the last couple of days. I think this next week we could see some more action.

“We’re going to concentrate on trying to add at least one defenceman. That’s where our focus is going to be all week.”

Miller checks a lot of boxes for the Canucks: he has both size and skill, can play up or down the lineup, at wing or centre, and is young enough to accompany Vancouver’s youthful, cornerstone players as they develop and the team improves.

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A 2011 first-round pick by the Rangers, Miller was included in the Ryan McDonagh deal to the Lightning when New York decided on a complete rebuild ahead of the 2018 trade deadline. Miller, who four months later signed his five-year, $26.25-million contract in Tampa, has a limited no-trade clause. He can submit an eight-team no-trade list.

But, again, if it comes to that, it probably means Benning isn’t in charge of the Canucks anymore.

This is the GM’s biggest trade since he acquired defenceman Erik Gudbranson from the Florida Panthers three years ago. Benning partially salvaged that deal when he moved Gudbranson on to the Pittsburgh Penguins in February for winger Tanner Pearson, who ended the season with nine goals in 19 games for the Canucks.

With Boeser, Pearson, Miller and Sven Baertschi, the Canucks may finally have enough wingers to adequately surround ace centres Horvat and Pettersson.

“Of course we’d like to add one more if we could,” Benning said.

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