VANCOUVER – Nobody here had Claude Julien in the pool.
Two weeks ago, the coach was an early Jack Adams Award favourite with the Montreal Canadiens. On Wednesday, Julien was on hold with Service Canada, seeing if that CERB thing is still available to the unemployed.
Julien was the first National Hockey League coach fired this season in the Canadian division, but there could be others. Fortunately, there are only seven teams, and we’re guessing at least a couple of the coaches who started the pandemic-shortened season six weeks ago will actually make it to spring, albeit twitching and afraid to answer their cell phones when call display shows the general manager.
Vancouver Canucks coach Travis Green has had to get comfortable being uncomfortable, seeing how he began the season on an expiring contract and then watched his team lose 15 of its first 23 games.
Green didn’t really have a noteworthy reaction to his colleague, Julien, getting fired. But he did have a reaction to losing 4-3 to the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday when the Canucks blew a three-goal lead to reach the emotional low point of their 8-13-2 season.
Green dropped talented but mistake-prone winger J.T. Miller — the team’s leading scorer from last season and a hugely influential player — to the third line beside Brandon Sutter and Antoine Roussel for Wednesday’s practice at Rogers Arena.
This is one of the coaching tools Green had yet to use on Miller, who can be either great or exasperating and has frequently contradicted the coach’s instructions for the Canucks to play simply and directly.
“Last year, we couldn't say enough good things about him,” Green said of the 27-year-old. “And yeah, maybe it hasn't gone perfect for him this year, but I've got to do a better job in managing his ice time. I think I'm giving him too many minutes, and it's hard not to when you’ve got a player that plays the way he does. He's also relatively young in a leadership role and managing his emotions is something that I think he's still learning.
“But I've seen it a lot over the years; highly competitive guys, man, they hate losing and it gets to them and sometimes they react in a way that isn't perfect. And as coaches, we need to continue to work with players like that and improve them and make them better in those areas, but also realize how good of a player he is. I'm not going to sit here and rip on J.T. Miller at all.”
That makes at least one person on the West Coast, where Miller’s risk-reward game and often negative body language after mistakes have made him a lightning rod for fan frustration.
Offensively, the first-line scorer is producing at about the same rate he did last season: 19 points in 20 games in 2021 after 72 points in 69 games last season. But his goal-scoring (four so far this season, 27 last year) and possession numbers (48.5 xGF% vs 52.8) are down, and his mistakes are up.
Other than hits, giveaways are one of the NHL’s least-reliably tracked statistics. But Miller’s giveaways per 60 minutes are 2.64, worst among Canucks forwards and up from 1.55 last season. Miller’s turnovers are compounded by optics. He will bellow expletives or briefly stop playing or shrug or sulk in frustration – none of which would get the attention it has if the Canucks’ wins and losses were reversed.
“I try not to but, at the same time, when you keep doing the same things and making the same mistakes and giving up leads and chasing the game, you know it's exhausting,” Miller said Wednesday when asked about his body language. “It's emotionally draining, it's frustrating. I try to find a balance between breaking a stick, dropping F-bombs or looking like whatever you guys see that I don't.
“Obviously, you don't want to do that. But I play on the edge and always have. I think it makes me the best version of myself as a player. I'm trying not to do that, but when you play a lot of minutes and we're not winning, like I said, it’s emotionally exhausting and it's frustrating. I really just care about winning and that's it. I'm hard on myself; I know if I play well, it gives our team a better chance to win. And obviously, nothing's really been crazy smooth this year for myself or the team. It's a frustrating game and I'm not going to apologize for being a frustrated hockey player.”
Miller’s importance to Canuck leadership increased significantly when consistent, focussed veterans Jacob Markstrom, Chris Tanev and Troy Stecher left Vancouver last fall as free agents. Their on-ice loss to the Canucks has probably been overstated, but the impact of their exit on the team’s leadership and culture was likely under-estimated.
Miller is paramount, both on the ice and in the dressing room.
“I play a lot of minutes and we're losing a lot of games,” he said. “I want to be a better player than I've shown so far. I don't know what else to tell you.”
Green indicated he may not stick with Wednesday’s practice lines for Thursday night’s rematch against the Oilers, but rookie Nils Hoglander skated beside Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser on the top unit, while Jake Virtanen moved up from the third line and practised with Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson.
Miller has been a fixture on Pettersson’s wing since he was acquired from Tampa in a trade at the 2019 entry draft. He is second to Boeser in team scoring and, with new penalty-kill duties this season, Miller easily leads Canuck forwards in average ice time at 20:24.
“J.T. is an emotional guy,” Green said. “He's a high-energy guy, highly-competitive guy, wears his heart on his sleeve. We talk about things internally a lot that we don't necessarily talk out in the public. I will say that he's a big part of our group. This is a guy you love to have on your team and I love having him on our team.”