Canucks' J.T. Miller moves on from frustrating year, hungry for season ahead

Vancouver Canucks' J.T. Miller (9) skates around Edmonton Oilers' Ryan McLeod (71) and scores a goal during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Vancouver, B.C., Monday, May 3, 2021. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

VANCOUVER — Without fans, the soundtrack to the Vancouver Canucks’ lost season felt like J.T. Miller.

His nightly F-bombs, stick slams, door crashes and general miserableness filled the sonic void where booing fans should have been as the team staggered to its most disappointing season this century.

It was about as joyless as Miller made it look and sound.

The roster upheaval, the brutal schedule and lack of practice time, the injuries, pandemic restrictions, empty arenas and, ultimately, the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the league, contributed to the Canucks’ spectacular faceplant.

No wonder there were reports some players wanted out.

But when Sportsnet insider Elliotte Friedman reached out to Miller in May, after the season, the unhappiest-looking guy on an unhappy team emphatically said he wanted to stay with the Canucks and wasn’t asking for a trade.

“I mean, this is the team I'm playing for and I have pride in that,” Miller explained to Sportsnet last week. “There was a lot of crap going on last year, but once the crap is over, there's going to be something good to come out of it. I don't pay attention to the rumours; I don't really pay attention to the internet at all. (But) I was getting some texts, 'What's going on?' I just wanted to set it straight, and I want to be part of this team. We've made some big moves coming into this year, we're getting our fans back, a regular schedule, there's a million reasons to be excited.

“I never once considered not coming back. It wasn't even a question.”

Even in a pre-training camp interview, Miller plays with emotion.

“You guys could hear a lot more without fans,” the 28-year-old from the Pittsburgh area continued. “Yes, there was more frustration because of how things were going and being on a losing team pretty much the entire season. That's what pisses me off. I've been like that since I was a little kid, so nothing really changed. It's part of my game I'm trying to clean up, but there was a lot of frustration last year. I’d like to dial that (back) as a player a little more, but I play on the edge and I have my whole career. That made me the player I am. I don't want to get rid of the fire; I just want to control it.

“All the stuff that happened, it was just insane, right? I just tried to move on. I don't want to think about last year when we had six-to-nine guys hurt, almost at all times. We had long-term injuries, a lot of players that never played (in) the NHL before, and we're all playing in front of no fans, guys quarantining between 30 and 50 days depending on who it was. Who the hell wants to think about that?

“I'm over it, it's a new day and everyone is so excited about this opportunity we have coming up here. I'm just trying to focus on that. I want to think about good things because there was a lot of bad that happened last year that made it not fun. It made time kind of stand still.”

And it made Miller stand out.

Compared to the forward’s initial season in Vancouver, when Miller became a powerful driver on the Canucks as they won two Stanley Cup playoff series and came within one game of making the Western Conference final, his 2021 campaign was as bad as his team’s.

Miller struggled defensively, earning a highly-publicized death stare from goalie Braden Holtby for a non-backcheck in Toronto, and his five-on-five goal share of 44 per cent was more than 17 points below his 2019-20 mark. The Canucks went from plus-22 goals with Miller on the ice at full strength to minus-10 — a 32-goal swing.

He played half the season without injured star Elias Pettersson as his centre and then filled in down the middle when the Canucks, almost comically, had all four of their regular centres missing at one point.

But amid this chaos and unconstructive anger, Miller still managed 45 points in 53 games. That is how good he is. Only Brock Boeser scored more points last season for the Canucks.

Miller said the Canucks are “hungry.” Personally, he’s starving.

“At the end of the day, we want to win games and we want our team to be a good, competitive hockey team,” Miller said. “We want to be in the playoffs competing for the Stanley Cup. That's why we all do this. There's tons of hungry people on this team right now. I think we're on the same page; we want to win and we want to get back to that playoff feeling we had a couple years ago.

“Everybody's got to take that next step in their development if you want to win. If you're just a passenger, no matter what level you're at, it's going to be hard to excel and win a lot of games. We need everybody. We've got the team and we just need to buckle down on one thing, and that's winning hockey games. We've got a lot of new faces, but I feel our team is going to be hungry. I'm using that word a lot.”

Canucks coach Travis Green caused a stir in August when he suggested to Sportsnet that playing Miller at centre may not be just last season’s experiment.

Even with the July acquisition of potential shutdown centre Jason Dickinson — and assuming the Canucks and Pettersson end their standoff and agree soon on a new contract — it’s possible Miller could play as much centre as left wing this season even if it means fewer points for him.

“You tell me; I don't know,” Miller said. “Obviously, that hasn't been decided. I am completely okay with both. I think I can help the team in both spots. I guess I'm going to have to see what happens with the centre I play with the most here (Pettersson).

“But I don't really care about the points. I'd be comfortable if I play centre. I could add maybe a little depth down the lineup. But Dickinson's a heckuva centreman, so we have a lot of options. That's another exciting element about this year: We have options. It's really not about more points here or there; I just want to win the game. And if we win a bunch of games, it's a lot more fun than getting points and losing, I can tell you that.”

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