VANCOUVER — They arrived two-by-two: two babies, two dogs, two cars. J.T. Miller could have used an ark. Might have come in handy, too, when the winter rains arrive on the West Coast.
“It’s been an absolutely crazy couple of months,” Miller said Thursday. “The cars and the dogs got shipped out, and we flew with the girls. They’re four months (old) and a year-and-a-half. I wouldn’t be able to do this without my wife and family. They’ve been super helpful and they’re just trying to make this transition easier for me.”
Great westerly moves across the North American continent have always had an epic quality to them. It’s the same way in the National Hockey League, where many players spend their entire careers in one conference. Not every player who traverses the logistical gulf that separates the Eastern Conference and far-flung Western side of the league can adapt as Miller is trying to do.
The Vancouver Canucks acquired him from the Tampa Bay Lightning in June, surrendering first- and third-round picks to get the power forward who has averaged 20 goals and 51 points over the last four seasons.
The 26-year-old has spent his life in the East, where he grew up on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border near Pittsburgh and played nearly six seasons for the New York Rangers before joining the Lightning 1 1/2 years ago.
The West is a new world to him. So are the Canucks, a team rebuilt around youth that finished 47 points behind the Lightning last season.
“I’m sure there’s a learning process here, especially with the western schedule,” Miller said before the Canucks flew to Edmonton for a pre-season game Thursday night against the Oilers. “I hear about how taxing it is over the course of an 82-game season.
“At first, you’re kind of in shock — you’re moving 2,500 miles from home. My wife and I are very home-oriented people. But we’ve had a few months to go over this and get ready for this. And now I’m so excited for this opportunity. Seeing what the Canucks gave up to get me means a lot. I want to make sure I start off on the right foot.”
For the record, Miller’s wife is Natalie, their daughters are Scotlyn and Scarlett, the dogs are labs — one yellow, one red — and J.T. has yet to encounter gridlock trying to commute to Rogers Arena across the Lions Gate Bridge.
Miller’s dad and stepmom flew out to help with the move, and Canucks centre Bo Horvat is helping with the transition on the ice.
Horvat and Miller have been linemates since training camp opened in Victoria last week.
“We’re trying to learn each other’s tendencies,” Miller said. “It’s harder in the offensive zone. Defensive zone, it’s very similar around the league. I was under the impression camp was going to be really hard, and it was. Terminology is different here, the drills are different, (and) obviously I’m playing with completely new people. I’m just trying to pick up things as quickly as possible.”
For the Canucks to make the playoffs this season, general manager Jim Benning needs to have hit on his acquisitions of Miller and another big winger, Micheal Ferland, who was signed as a free agent and has been skating with top centre Elias Pettersson.
It’s hard for the Canucks to win the Miller trade without making the playoffs. The 2020 first-round pick that Benning surrendered is lottery-protected for one year.
Miller’s goal production last season dropped to 13 from 23, and his goals-per-game were the lowest since his sophomore NHL season in 2013-14. But his average ice time was also down 3 1/2 minutes from the previous year on a record-breaking Lightning team.
His 1.44 shots per game were the fewest in Miller’s career. Coupled with a 12-per-cent shooting percentage that was 4.5 points below his scoring rate over the previous three years, it was easy to see how the 220-pound power forward managed only 13 goals.
It’s equally easy to envision that goal total potentially doubling this season if Miller plays with Horvat or Pettersson and is part of an improved power play.
“I’ve got to get my shot volume up because I think I have a shot that can beat goaltenders,” Miller said. “I think I can score more goals. But I don’t want to put more pressure on myself to score. I think I’m capable — the goals will come.”
Miller brings more to the Canucks than scoring potential.
“He’s a player you notice when you play against him,” Canucks veteran Jay Beagle, who spent 10 seasons back east with the Washington Capitals, said of his new teammate. “He has skill and a great shot, and sees the game so well. But his grit, that’s the thing. For me, it’s always easy to play against players who have skill but don’t want to go into hard areas. He’s a guy you don’t want to go into hard areas with. I thought it was a great trade.”
There’s lots of time to find out. Part of Miller’s allure was cost certainty: a contract that runs for four more seasons at $5.25 million.
“Everybody wants big minutes with great opportunity,” he said. “But I think as professionals, we understand there are roles to fill. Once you’re committed to that role, you have to be a good teammate and go with it — whether it’s first line, fourth line, penalty kill, power play. Whatever it is, you’ve got to bring it to the table because that’s what makes teams.
“I understand the potential this team has. From the veteran core to the young talent, we have some really good players. You don’t want to put too much pressure on how a team will shake out, but I do think we have a good chance to be a really good hockey team.”