VANCOUVER – There is a difference between making phone calls and receiving them.
Anyone can make a phone call asking about acquiring a player. But the key is making the call about selling one. Yes, for those who remember Seinfeld, that sounds a little like Jerry standing in front of a rental car counter.
The Vancouver Canucks have not been making calls trying to trade J.T. Miller. They weren’t shopping him a month ago when Miller trade speculation exploded, and they aren’t shopping him now that the centre’s 10-game points streak is elevating his season to among the best by a Canuck forward this century.
Vancouver hockey-operations president Jim Rutherford declined Thursday to speak specifically about any of his players who have been thrown into the conjecture cauldron ahead of the National Hockey League’s trade deadline on March 21, but said inquiries are part of the business.
“Teams do their work, what they always do under the course of business,” Rutherford said. “They call about different players and general managers will talk back and forth. But that is far from meaning that a player's being traded.”
Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin told Sportsnet last month that the plan for Miller, under contract for another season at $5.25 million, is to sit down in the summer and discuss how his future might match the team’s. Miller turns 29 on Monday, an age that Allvin believes doesn’t preclude a contract extension in Vancouver.
The GM reiterated that plan this week in an interview with The Athletic, telling Pierre LeBrun: “We don’t need to force anything here. He’s hopefully a guy that we can continue to have here in Vancouver. But we haven’t gone down that path yet. It’s something we’ll get into this summer.”
With only depth forwards Tyler Motte and Alex Chiasson, and backup goalie Jaroslav Halak eligible after this season for unrestricted free agency, management feels no urgency to trade a core player before March 21.
“Nothing has changed,” Rutherford said Thursday. “That's what we've been saying since we've been here.”
Then what about the breathless public discussion on Miller and Brock Boeser and other Canucks?
“You think we're the only team in the league (with rumours) that their players are being traded?” Rutherford said, bemused, not upset. “It happens in every city. This is the time of year that it happens. Players are smart enough to know that most of the things out there. . . do not come directly from the people that are making the decisions. The players understand that that is not coming from us.”
The only thing nearly as surprising as the Canucks’ 21-8-4 turnaround under Rutherford and coach Bruce Boudreau is that the head of hockey-ops, a renowned gunslinger when he was winning two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, is three months into the job in Vancouver and has yet to make a trade.
If he makes one or more in the next 11 days, it is far more likely to involve Halak or Motte than one of the core players whose contracts give management time after the season to make fully-measured decisions and with a broader field of potential trading partners than what exists under trade-deadline cap pressure.
The Canucks will have to convince Halak to waive his no-movement clause in order to trade the goalie and next season’s bonus overage of at least $1.25 million.
Motte would be a handy depth piece for a lot of teams, but the Canucks may yet try to re-sign the player whose speed, work ethic, character and consistency fit the culture the new regime is trying to shape in Vancouver – even if it means letting March 21 pass without a new deal.
The problem with keeping Boeser is a $7.5-million qualifying offer due to the looming restricted free agent. But, as with Miller’s future, this is an issue the Canucks have some time to navigate.
“I've said it several times since I've been here: these guys deserve the chance to keep going and hopefully that's the way it works out,” Rutherford said his players, who remain three points out of a playoff spot despite the stunning rebound from a 6-14-2 first quarter. “I mean, even teams that don't look to make trades can still make a trade. But it would be good to see this group play it out and see where it goes.”
At his introductory press conference in December, Rutherford suggested without fanfare that the dismal team he was inheriting “may be even a little better than people think.”
He was wrong. It is a lot better, although Rutherford insisted on Thursday that he is not surprised.
With eight wins in their last 10 games, the Canucks play the Washington Capitals Friday at Rogers Arena.
“All we can ask is the players keep working the way they're working,” he said. “We know that there was a hole dug here early and we may run out of runway. But they just give it all they've got and we see where it ends up. And regardless how it ends up, it's a building block. It makes it easier to evaluate players for our hockey staff. It makes it better for the players learning how to win on a consistent basis.
“It's not going to be about whether we make the playoffs or not. It's how players play in these situations, how they deal with attention to detail. Can they play within a structure? All those things we have to work on in order to be better than what we are now.”
And all of that sounds like Rutherford and Allvin will be keeping as many core pieces as possible, while still trying to deepen and add speed to a team that since Dec. 5 has the fifth-best record in the NHL.