Do Canucks need to make playoffs for Miller trade to be worth it?

Elias Pettersson plays the puck off the half-wall and finds J.T. Miller in the high slot for a one-timer blast that rips off the post and in against the Columbus Blue jackets.

The Vancouver Canucks are struggling right now. There’s no two ways about that. Some level of panic is beginning to set in and, for a franchise that has been trailed by bad luck through much of its history, you can understand why.

Vancouver has gone from first place in a tight divisional race just over a week ago to the first wild card spot today thanks to a three-game losing streak. Heightening the urgency somewhat is that the Canucks conditionally traded away a first-round pick last summer for J.T. Miller. The deal effectively established a window in which the Canucks had to turn the corner as a competing franchise.

So, does Vancouver have to make the playoffs this season in order for that gamble to be worth it? Here’s a quick breakdown…

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THE TRADE

On Day 2 of last summer’s NHL draft, the Canucks acquired Miller from the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for a conditional first-round pick in 2020 and a 2019 third-rounder. If the Canucks missed the playoffs in 2020 they would be able to keep their pick, but have to give up their 2021 first-rounder regardless of their finish next season. So, if Vancouver were to miss the playoffs in 2019-20 and 2020-21, they would hand over an unprotected lottery pick for Miller.

This is why the clock has started on Vancouver’s window to get into the post-season.

The Lightning used Vancouver’s pick to acquire Blake Coleman from New Jersey in the lead up to the trade deadline, so now it’s the rebuilding Devils who would stand to benefit if the Canucks fail to push forward.

 
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THE RESULT

Miller has been a perfect fit in Vancouver. With Elias Pettersson, the two have formed a lethal combination and February trade pickup Tyler Toffoli has been productive with them since joining the the team. Miller is already 10 points past his career-high and three goals past his career-best as well with 17 games to go in the season.

While Pettersson, Quinn Hughes and Jacob Markstrom have grabbed all the attention for their great play this season, it may surprise some to learn it’s Miller who leads the team in scoring with 26 goals and 68 points. He brings a level of grit and toughness that has an unquantifiable value as well and by all accounts he’s great in the room. An unofficial assistant captain if you will.

“We’ve got a lot of young guys who haven’t been in a playoff run,” Miller told Sportsnet’s Iain MacIntyre last week. “I think it’s important that we don’t put too much pressure on ourselves down the stretch and start squeezing it too tight. But I think it’s good that we’re in (a playoff race). Last year in Tampa, we clinched so early that we got away from our game a little bit going into the playoffs. This year, we have to play our game right into the playoffs.”

The NHL-tracked hits stat is sometimes a little inconsistent from arena to arena, but it’s also telling that Miller leads the Canucks with 109 recorded hits this season. He’s been a horse for them, supplying Vancouver with just about every element. Miller’s 19:54 average ice time per game tops all Canucks forwards and he’s on the top power play line. And lest you think he’s accumulating points thanks to a cushy spot on the league’s third-best power play unit, Miller is tied for 17th in the NHL in points per 60 minites of 5-on-5 play, tied with Montreal’s Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher.

A lot of his success could be attributed to opportunity as well. Miller is playing more than he ever has and shooting more than ever. His shooting percentage (16.7) is only marginally higher than his career average, so there’s no indication that his performance is a fluke.

While it may be easy to chalk some of this success up to the fact he’s spent most of his time next to Pettersson, it can only be seen as a win that the trade GM Jim Benning made for his first-round pick returned a player who fits so well with the team’s superstar.

THE CONCLUSION

There’s no doubt that the trade was a bold one in which Benning assumed some risk. But considering that this is already his sixth season as GM and the team has made the playoffs only one time, Benning’s job was probably already on the line if he didn’t make the playoffs in the next two seasons.

Still, this deal is about more than just self-preservation. The Canucks needed an infusion of support scoring to ease some of the attention being paid to Pettersson. The young Swede will still be the main focus of defences of course, but that only means Miller is free to roam and take advantage.

There comes a time in every rebuilding team’s development where a step needs to be taken and that can sometimes demand a trade of substance that usually brings some level of risk with it. Miller has held up his end of the bargain and been a fantastic fit in every way. Without him, it’s hard to imagine the Canucks would score enough to be as high as they have been in the standings.

And, heck, look at some of the trades made at the deadline. The NY Islanders gave up a first-round pick for third-line centre J-G Pageau and then signed him to a six-year contract with a $5 million cap hit. Tampa Bay gave up Vancouver’s first to add Blake Coleman and the cost certainty he brings next season on a $1.8 million cap hit before he becomes UFA eligible.

Miller came to Vancouver with a $5.25 million cap hit that doesn’t expire until 2023. Comparing it to the market, this is fantastic value. Had they waited until the deadline to make their move for a scorer, the risk would have been higher.

Given that the Canucks would give up an unprotected first-rounder next season if they miss the playoffs in 2020, do they have to make it this year for the deal to be worth it?

I’d say no.

Vancouver is still developing and though they have a major contract negotiation to come with pending UFA Markstrom this off-season, there’s few reasons to believe they’ll take a step back in 2020-21. Sure, Markstrom could walk and they could be left with a lot of uncertainty there, but the UFA class of goalies should have some options available. This isn’t an unusual or even unsolvable concern.

If they miss the playoffs in 2020, at least they’ll retain their first-rounder in what’s regarded as a strong and deep draft. Sure, the risk exists that Vancouver could end up losing a high pick next year, but as long as the California teams stay depressed in the Pacific, that appears more unlikely than not.

It would take a very unlucky bounce of the lottery balls for this trade to take a sharp and unfavourable turn away from the Canucks, but you can’t plan for that. This is the price of business, to push a team along, and the fit has been perfect for the Canucks. No sense in second-guessing it now, or at this time next season.

Fortune favours the bold.

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