As pressure points pass, Canucks-Miller saga inevitably sliding into next season

Vancouver Canucks' J.T. Miller celebrates his goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Vancouver, on Saturday, February 12, 2022. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

VANCOUVER – The first question of the Vancouver Canucks’ off-season is likely going to be the last one answered. 

We may not know where J.T. Miller is headed next until the National Hockey League trade deadline sometime next winter. 

Despite being squeezed by salary-cap issues, Miller’s age and his elite market value, the Canucks have allowed a series of trade pressure points to pass without movement. After months of frantic trade conjecture, both sides seem comfortable with what appears to be an inevitable slide into next season in Vancouver, and the final year of Miller’s current contract.

Yes, that could turn into a circus, especially if Miller continues to be the Canucks’ best forward since his trade from the Tampa Bay Lightning three years ago, and the team plays itself towards a playoff spot after a strong finish last season under new coach Bruce Boudreau.

But as sub-optimal as it would be for the Canucks to hold on to Miller without a contract extension or trade clarity, it is far preferable to dealing with a Matthew Tkachuk situation, where the winger has told the Calgary Flames he has no intention of signing an extension after this season, prompting the team to initiate trade talks.

While Tkachuk doesn’t want to play for the Flames, Miller wants to play for the Canucks. Even so, finding a deal that makes sense for both parties is a daunting challenge.

“I think everybody recognizes the circumstances that we're in,” agent Brian Bartlett said of Miller. “We understand that there's a salary cap and understand that there are decisions teams need to make to try to be competitive now and in the future. They recognize that J.T. has had a really remarkable three years in Vancouver, and they’ve said he has been one of the best players. So I think everybody recognizes where everyone's coming from."

"It's just: What's the solution that's best for everybody? It's not my realm to decide what's best for the Vancouver Canucks, but I think there are ways certainly to make cap room. It's not easy, but there is a way if they feel it's best for the team.”

As an example, Bartlett cited bold moves the Vegas Golden Knights made to clear cap space in successive seasons by sacrificing assets in order to add superstar centre Jack Eichel and elite defenceman Alex Pietrangelo. 

“I don't know that I can handicap it at this time,” Canucks president Jim Rutherford said of re-signing Miller. “I really don't know. These things take strange turns at times. There's communication between Patrik (general manager Allvin) and J.T.’s agent. They've handled it very well, so we'll just have to see where it goes.”

The Canucks reportedly offered Miller a six-year extension before the entry draft two weeks ago. However, it’s unrealistic the 29-year-old should settle for anything less than a seven- or eight-year extension after a 99-point season, and ranking 12th in NHL scoring over the last three years.

Miller will be 30 years old when his current contract and bargain salary of $5.25 million expire next year. His age, position and 1.07 points-per-game the last three seasons are almost identical to New York Rangers centre Mika Zibanejad (1.06 PPG), who will be 29 when his eight-year, $68-million extension begins next season.

Miller also outperformed the 0.79 points-per-game Thomas Hertl generated the last three years before the 28-year-old signed his eight-year, $65.1-million extension with the San Jose Sharks.

Already headed towards needing long-term injured reserve next fall, the Canucks are up against the $82.5-million salary cap after Rutherford and Allvin inherited a series of inflated contracts from previous general manager Jim Benning. Key defencemen Oliver Ekman-Larsson ($7.26 million average salary) and Tyler Myers ($6 million) come with major cap hits, as do depth players Tanner Pearson ($3.25 million), Jason Dickinson ($2.65 million) and Tucker Poolman ($2.5 million).

These financial obstacles could contribute to making Miller’s situation a distraction once next season begins.

“There's always that possibility,” Rutherford said. “But what I see in J.T. is a guy that's very competitive. And he knows something's getting done at some point whether it's in Vancouver or somewhere else. I'm not going to sit here and say that we're 100 per cent sure it's not going to be a distraction. Even when there's nothing to talk about, everybody has talked about it since the trade deadline. And everybody's going to continue to talk about it until it's resolved.”

“J.T. likes Vancouver,” Bartlett said. “He likes his teammates, he likes the coaching staff and he likes management. He's under contract for another year and not at all unhappy, so there's no particular urgency from our end. 

“We recognize that as good players get into the last year of their contract, teams have asset-management decisions to make. Our agent job is simple: just do what's good for the player, keep him happy and try to keep everything level. But the teams have an extra couple layers of complications of trying to figure out how to fit the puzzle pieces together. From our end, this is not a place where J.T. is unhappy or wanting to get out of. But whether he plays out the contract and extends it or plays out the contract and goes someplace else, it's not totally up to us.”

The Miller contract saga could go another seven-plus months as the Canucks seek a salary-cap solution and compromise, or a legitimate trade partner for their best forward.

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