After an emergent season, J.T. Miller’s ‘main focus’ is winning with the Canucks

Vancouver Canucks' J.T. Miller celebrates his goal against the Vegas Golden Knights during the third period of an NHL hockey game in Vancouver, B.C., Sunday, April 3, 2022. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

VANCOUVER – Records are meant to be broken, like Cotton Eye Joe. Doug Lidster’s single-season points record for a Vancouver Canucks defenceman was also meant to broken, although no one thought it would take 35 years for someone to eclipse 63 points.

Still, it was inevitable that Quinn Hughes would surpass Lidster, and it took the 22-year-old until his third National Hockey League season to do so mostly because COVID came along and wrecked the first two. It was easy to imagine in October that Hughes would erase Lidster’s record by May.

But who saw J.T. Miller scoring 100 points?

Only five Canucks in 52 years have hit triple digits in a single season. Miller, the 29-year-old power forward whose career high was 58 points before he came to Vancouver in 2019, is sitting on 97 points with regular-season games remaining Thursday against the Los Angeles Kings and Friday against the Edmonton Oilers.

Ninety-seven points ties Miller with Todd Bertuzzi for the seventh-most productive season in franchise history. And only one Canuck, Henrik Sedin, has ever had more assists in a season than Miller’s 66 helpers.

The only Vancouver players who have reached 100 points are Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Pavel Bure, Markus Naslund and Alex Mogilny.

Miller has scored 16 more points this season than any Canuck since Daniel won the NHL scoring title with 104 in 2011. He is 31 points ahead of his nearest teammate.

Seriously, Miller should get some Hart Trophy votes. Yes — J.T. Miller.

“He’s an unknown superstar,” Canucks coach Bruce Boudreau said this week.

But he’s not unknown in Vancouver, and discussion about Miller’s future with the Canucks will dominate the off-season like the centre from the Pittsburgh area has dominated on the ice.

Miller has one season remaining at a bargain salary of $5.25 million. But given his age, value as a potential unrestricted free agent, and the Canucks’ salary-cap squeeze, it’s possible his next contract  will be unaffordable to the club. Which means this summer could bring a trade, rather than a contract extension.

But all the winning the Canucks did the last four-and-a-half months under Boudreau has inspired Miller, who told Sportsnet in an exclusive interview that he wants to win with his “friends” in Vancouver. He also said he believes what he has done offensively, blowing through his previous ceiling with the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning, is sustainable for next season and beyond.

“I’ve kind of been on this trajectory for a while,” Miller said. “My first year here (in 2019-20), I had over a point-per-game and I had 27 goals. I mean, I feel like I could have got close to 90 points if I’d pushed that year (to 82 games). I think it would have been pretty similar to this year.

“I’ve talked so much about how crappy last year was for us. Like, I just want to ignore it for my whole career. But, I guess, from a production standpoint, I feel like I’ve been on a different trajectory the last few years. I feel good about it.

“I really do believe that when I come and have the right mindset about what makes me a good player. . . I typically play better and points come and we win more. It’s so simple, but it took me a long time to figure that out. Expectation-wise, it’s hard to hold that from a production standpoint. But my goal is to be a very complete, 200-foot centreman that can play against anybody. I want to play against the best players and, sacrificing some points for that but to give up less (defensively), that’s where I want to be. Our team is going to be in a great spot over the next few years, and I really do believe that we can do something special as a group here.”

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In three seasons since former general manager Jim Benning surrendered a first-round pick to Tampa to get him, Miller has 215 points in 200 games as a Canuck. The next nearest teammates are Hughes at 160 points (in 198 games) and Elias Pettersson at 153 points (172 games).

No wonder general manager Patrik Allvin said in February that, ideally, Miller is a player you build around, not one you trade.

But what does the player want?

“Winning is the best,” Miller said. “Winning is just more fun, right? You’re excited to come to the rink. Players are playing with more confidence, everybody’s feeling good about themselves, and that brings energy. And we have really good leadership here in the sense we’re always pushing each other. We all want to be better. We’re pushing each other to be a little bit better every day. And I think it showed in our results.

“It’s definitely exciting. It’s amazing when you see the first half of the year, and it’s just so negative. There was nothing much positive going on, and so your mind can start to go other places. But I want to win here. My best friends are here, my teammates are here. We want to win here, and I want to win here. I’ve said that the whole time when I got asked these questions, that’s my main focus — winning with this group. And it’s very, very exciting to see how far we’ve come.”

J.T. Miller, right, and Tanner Pearson celebrate Miller’s overtime goal against the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021, in Anaheim, Calif. The Canucks won 2-1. (Jae C. Hong/AP Photo)

The Dallas Stars’ shootout victory Tuesday eliminated the Canucks from the wildcard playoff race despite Vancouver improving to 31-15-9 under Boudreau with a 5-2 win against the Seattle Kraken at Rogers Arena.

The damage the Canucks inflicted to themselves by starting the season 8-15-2 under Benning and former coach Travis Green was simply too great to survive.

“You have to start on time, and I mean that in the sense of a season and a game,” Miller said. “It really shows that you can’t take off a quarter of the season. I think we’ve showed how hard it is to play catch up. We were top-10 team in the league from then on, a two-to-one ratio in wins and losses. I also think it’s important to find your identity as a team, and I think we have. We know what works.”

Miller said the Canucks’ mid-season regime change doesn’t change his feeling of loyalty.

“I don’t know Jim (Rutherford, the Canucks new president) and Patrik very well yet, so that’s different,” he said. “But I’ve gotten to know Bruce over the last little bit here and the relationship is great. I’m always going to be loyal to the organization, no matter who is here. It’s different people that brought me in to what it is now, but that doesn’t change things for me. I’m still trying to play the same way, trying to earn everything that I get.

“You can see how far we’ve come. We’re a proud group here and we feel good about what we’ve done. We’ve come a long way.”

Miller, too.

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