By signing long-term extension, Canucks signal J.T. Miller is worth the risk

Iain MacIntyre joins Faizal Khamisa to break down J.T. Miller's brand new contract, why Vancouver gave him a 7-year deal, if the Canucks can make a playoff push, and what Miller means to the team.

VANCOUVER — The months-long conjecture about J.T. Miller’s future with the Vancouver Canucks was always about what the hockey team would do with its best forward.

The discussion was never about what Miller wanted, which became even more obvious Friday when the Canucks announced a sudden and unexpected end to the contract drama: a seven-year, $56-million-US extension for a player who will be 30 years old when his next deal begins in 2023.

Nine months after inheriting the National Hockey League team — and all its strengths and weaknesses — Canucks president Jim Rutherford still hasn’t shown the gunslinger mentality to trade players that was his management history.

But he unloaded with both barrels in re-signing Miller, who led the Canucks with 99 points last season and is 12th in league scoring since Vancouver surrendered a first-round draft pick to acquire the powerful American from the Tampa Bay Lightning three years ago.

“I always felt that we were going to be able to keep him as long as he wanted to stay here,” Rutherford told Sportsnet in a phone call Friday night. “And it was pretty obvious that he wanted to be here, he wanted this to be his home, and that was a key factor. We would have liked to move a contract or two out to not have that (salary-cap) pressure on us. . . next off-season.

“But with the importance of J.T., we just said: Okay, we're just going to be like a lot of other teams and take that risk and deal with it when the time comes so we can get this done before camp.”

There is a chance Miller will outperform his contract over the next four or five years. He was ninth in scoring last season but his $8-million cap hit is tied for 50th in the NHL. 

Still, 29 years old and with a year remaining on his current bargain deal at $5.25 million, the centre is likely to be overpaid when his next contract ends.

Miller’s agent, Brian Bartlett, said his client “left at least some money on the table.” The contract is seven years, not eight, and $8 million a season, not $9 million. But the Canucks are still paying a mountain of money to keep their best forward — and one of their most emotional and influential leaders — because any trade was likely to set the team back in the short term and management believes in Miller.

“This is a player that you have to take some risk with,” Rutherford explained. “You don't know when players get to that age (in their mid-30s). Some players still play fine and some start to decline a little bit more. But for what J.T. has done for the Canucks, what he's capable of doing going forward, we just felt it was worth that. He's a good player, he wants to be here. And I feel he'll figure out a way to contribute even in the latter stages of that contract.”

Miller and general manager Patrik Allvin, co-architect of the contract, will speak to the media on Tuesday.

“J.T. is absolutely ecstatic,” Bartlett told Sportsnet. “If nothing else, J.T. is a competitor and he wants to win. And he feels like this gives him a great chance to win a Stanley Cup before his career is over. He loves Vancouver and is excited to be there for the rest of his career.

“This is what he wanted. He loves the guys, loves the city. Fifty-six million for a 30-year-old is great. But when you step back and look at the market, he left at least a little money on the table. Vancouver is where he wanted to be.”

But until the Canucks moved significantly this week, it felt like a long shot — Miller’s age and undeniable market value pushing up against the team’s ongoing cap issues and the evolutionary curve of Vancouver’s younger core players.

One of those players, 27-year-old captain Bo Horvat, also has one year remaining on his contract and is in discussions with management on a long-term extension. Winger Brock Boeser, 25, signed a three-year, $20-million contract in July.

Miller has more than money on his mind this weekend after his son, Owen, was born on Thursday. Miller and his wife, Natalie, also have young daughters Scotlyn and Scarlett. The family is based in Pittsburgh.

But Vancouver is home now, too.

“My best friends are here, my teammates are here,” Miller told us in April during the final week of the regular season. “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.”

“You can sense the hunger in the fan base,” Bartlett reiterated on Friday. “You can sense the desire in the city to have a winner. He's there every day with these guys in practice, every day with them, win or lose. He knows that there's a lot of talent in the locker room and a lot of good guys in that room. There's a lot of belief that if everybody pushes in the right direction, as everybody's game kind of matures together, they can really do something with it.”

The seven-year-deal comes with a no-movement clause, softened by a modified no-trade clause over the final three seasons.

Miller’s 32 goals and 99 points last season were career-highs and made him the highest-scoring Canuck since Hall-of-Famers Henrik and Daniel Sedin won NHL scoring titles in 2010 and 2011. Miller has been a point-per-game player since arriving in Vancouver and believes what he has done offensively with the Canucks is sustainable.

“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,” he said in April. “It's so simple, but it took me a long time to figure that out.”

The Canucks would have been a unicycle-riding-clown short of a circus had they gone into this season with Miller’s status unresolved.

“The preference is not to have anything hanging over the team,” Rutherford agreed. “But you can't just make a deal to make a deal for that reason. You have to make it if you think it's a fair deal for both sides, and we got to a point where both sides felt that there's a deal we could live with. But I think that word, ‘relief,’ is a fair word.”

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