VANCOUVER – J.T. Miller’s timing is perfect. Outrage on the West Coast that the Vancouver Canucks are courting free-agent defenceman Tyler Myers has completely engulfed criticism of the acquisition of Miller.
Of course, it’s not Miller’s fault – any more than it will be Myers’ – what a National Hockey League team thinks he is worth.
The Tampa Bay Lightning had Miller and said it wanted first- and third-round draft picks for him. And the Canucks, rather than haggling for days or weeks, and possibly seeing the forward get traded elsewhere, agreed at the NHL draft on Saturday to the steep price.
At least they secured the reliable, two-way player they targeted and needed for their top six, and in Miller also have a 26-year-old on a reasonable contract who will help the Canucks for the next four years.
Coincidentally, Miller was literally on his way to Vancouver with the New York Rangers when he was traded to the Lightning 16 months ago. He’ll make it here soon, but fortunately was not flying Monday when the air was clogged with ash from the latest eruption of Mount Vancouver over evidence of the Canucks’ long-rumoured interest in Myers, the impending Winnipeg Jet free agent who is likely to command way more than he is worth on July 1. (As most free agents do).
General manager Jim Benning, coach Travis Green and managing owner Francesco Aquilini led the Canuck delegation in a Sunday dinner with Myers in Vancouver. The Canucks probably even paid!
As one of the top two defencemen still headed toward unrestricted free agency, Myers could receive on the open market a seven-year contract in excess of $50 million, which is, of course, absurd for a second- or third-pairing blue-liner with range and handy puck skills to go with his defensive-zone shortcomings.
Many fans in Canuck Nation suggested online that Benning should be fired if he signs Myers, who is 29 years old. But the truly angry were on eBay, pooling their resources to purchase a crown of thorns and an old map to Golgotha.
Aquilini wants to be a populist, a man of the people – the billionaire from East Vancouver who never lost his roots as a Canucks fan.
But he has stuck by Benning when the angry mob would have fired him years ago, before the GM drafted Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes and rebuilt the roster. Keenly aware what people say – and by “people” we mean those not employed in the NHL – Aquilini will surely have to consider not only what Myers would cost in money but also criticism.
Angry Canucks Twitter is a minority in the fanbase, but it’s a significant one.
If the Canucks don’t overpay in free agency for a defenceman, they’ll probably have to overpay for one in trade. But at least that would give Benning the next four months to make his best deal possible, instead of the next week when managers are hostage to the free agents they’re courting.
Maybe Myers, who played junior hockey in Kelowna and keeps a home in the Okanagan, will sign for four years at $6 million per season instead of seven years at $8 million. Whatever his contract, he’d be a divisive figure in Vancouver.
By contrast, it’s hard to imagine anyone not liking J.T. Miller. It was only the trade price that was controversial.
In his full season with the Lightning, who re-signed him to a five-year, $26.25-million contract after acquiring him from Rangers, Miller had 13 goals and 47 points, his poorest season offensively in four years.
But on the most talented team in hockey, Miller’s role and ice time also went down. The previous three years, he averaged 22 goals and 52 points and his shooting percentage was an impressive 16.3 per cent. For context, consider Canuck sniper Brock Boeser’s shooting percentage through two-plus seasons is 14.3.
Miller can finish. And asked Monday about Benning’s suggestion that he’ll play alongside Boeser and Calder Trophy winner Elias Pettersson, Miller said he would expect to exceed the “low-20s” in goals if that is his deployment.
“Every time we played the Canucks … there was so much young talent,” Miller said in a conference call. “It was always fun to play these guys, and now to be able to be a part of it is going to be really cool. There is a ton of potential on this team. I’m going to do whatever I can to help push for the playoffs and hopefully get in there.”
Pettersson and Boeser scored against Miller’s team when the Canucks won 4-1 in Tampa last October, one of only seven home games the Lightning lost all season.
“Super-talented young hockey players, guys that I definitely watch and am in awe over what they can do in the NHL at a young age,” Miller said. “If I’m given that opportunity, obviously I’ll use my size (6-1, 218 pounds) to get pucks back for them and then try to get to the net and create as much room as possible. One of the strong suits of my game is I can play with anybody on any line.”
On the Canucks, Miller will probably play net-front on the power play, which would free Bo Horvat to play the “bumper” role between Pettersson and Boeser. Hughes should be on the point.
From the Pittsburgh area, Miller said he’s looking forward to living and playing in Vancouver. He and his wife Natalie have two infant daughters, born between dad’s two trades.
Miller said it isn’t hard mentally to go from a Presidents’ Trophy-winning team in Tampa to one in Vancouver that missed the playoffs the last four years.
“It really is an awesome place to play hockey and to live,” he said. “And with the young talent this team has, the veteran core, I think we can do some really good things.”
If they don’t, he’ll hear about it.