With Miller re-signed, Canucks can turn attention to Horvat

Dan Murphy and Iain MacIntyre break down J.T. Miller's long-term contract with Canucks, and discuss the future of captain Bo Horvat, with MacIntyre believing that they can and will make room within the salary cap to afford both players.

VANCOUVER – It was never J.T. Miller or Bo Horvat, one or the other. The Vancouver Canucks always hoped to keep both and have budgeted for both.

Due to age, market cost and the team’s salary-cap pressures, Miller was going to be the more difficult to re-sign. But his surprising seven-year, $56-million-US extension, which came together in a hurry last week, doesn’t preclude the Canucks from re-signing Horvat, the captain whose current contract, like Miller’s, expires after this season.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin wants to keep his best players, and it just so happens that three of the five “core” players he identified for reporters on Tuesday play centre. Elias Pettersson, the gifted 23-year-old who has two years remaining on a bridge deal that pays $7.35 million annually, was the third centre touted by Allvin. The GM also named defenceman Quinn Hughes and goalie Thatcher Demko.

If you’re building a hockey club, three excellent centres, a No. 1 defenceman and star goalie make a formidable foundation, possibly an ideal one.

But there is a financial reality under the salary cap, as harsh as it is clear, that devoting so much money to three guys who play the same position limits the Canucks’ options elsewhere.

“A little bit,” Allvin agreed Tuesday after his first press conference since free agency in July. “If you have an opportunity to build a team, you prefer to build through the middle with a strong goalie. With Petey having a chance to play centre (instead of wing), I think that definitely gives us a really, really strong middle there.

“If you have those three centremen, it doesn't mean whoever plays in the three hole is a third-line centre. I think it's more the luxury of how you build your roster and with how the coaches are matching up. Technically, you can only have one No. 1 centre. But in order to be good, you need the depth.”

Technically, Leon Draisaitl is the No. 2 centre in Edmonton, but he’s still one of the best half-dozen players on the planet. Technically, Evgeni Malkin was the No. 2 centre in Pittsburgh, behind Sidney Crosby, when Allvin worked there before being hired last January to run the Canucks.

The Canucks have three outstanding centres, although Pettersson could play a lot of wing this season, and Allvin wants to maintain that. He offered neither optimism nor pessimism about Horvat re-signing soon, noting the Canucks still have him for another season, minimum.

But it will be surprising, having found their way to a settlement on Miller, if the Canucks open their season Oct. 12 in Edmonton without a new contract for Horvat that will pay the captain about $7 million for the following seven or eight years.

To put this cost in context, the inflation in new contracts for Miller and Horvat will total about $4.25 million, less than what Allvin paid in July for free-agent winger Ilya Mikheyev ($4.75 million) and slightly more than the “dead” money ($3.65 million) that will fall off the Canucks’ cap next summer.

The team can afford Miller and Horvat. But will they be able to afford Pettersson in 2024? And how will they pay for the upgrades management acknowledges needing on defence?

“We don't have to make moves coming into this season in order to get both signed here,” Allvin said of Miller and Horvat. “But moving forward, we need to be aware of the cap situation and potentially some rosters decisions coming into next summer.”

On his defence, unchanged despite Allvin stating that he would try to upgrade it through trade, the GM said: “It's hard to compare from team to team, but in Pittsburgh, you had a lot of good forwards. So in order for the team to be successful, you want to get the puck up ice quickly. And I think here, by adding the forwards we did this summer, I think we are a deeper team. We have more options. And if we can have the puck coming up (out of) our own end quicker and spend more time in the offensive zone, I think we will be a better team.”

The Canucks finished the season 32-15-10 after Bruce Boudreau replaced Travis Green as coach in December and Jim Rutherford was hired to rebuild hockey operations following the dismissal of GM Jim Benning.

Miller finished with 99 points, making him the National Hockey League’s 12th-highest scoring player over the three seasons he has played in Vancouver. No wonder he wants to spend the next eight here, too.

“Honestly, no, I probably didn't scratch (for every dollar),” Miller told reporters on Zoom earlier Tuesday. “But at the same time, we thought that we were going for an offer that was fair on my end. And the trumping factor is that I want to be in Vancouver. I love this group of guys and I want to win in Vancouver, and I still believe that we have the team that can do it there. And every single year that our group is there, we're just going to get better and better.”

Miller predicted the best is yet to come and said: “I don't think we're far off, I guess is what I'm saying. Everybody (on the team) thinks that we're pretty close and only going to get better and more mature as a group. We're going to be very hard to handle, I think.”

Certainly, the powerful Miller is hard to handle for opponents. He is a massive component for the Canucks, a guy who has missed only five games in three years and brings emotion and offence nearly every night.

“I think he could dictate an outcome of every single game that we played last year,” Allvin said of the 29-year-old from Pittsburgh.

“I don't come from a whole lot (financially), my family,” Miller said when asked about his windfall. “And it means a lot to us. It's very emotional. At the end of the day, I wasn't really . . . about the money. I mean, I just want to be somewhere where I think that we can win hockey games. I'm very fortunate in that sense. I feel very, very lucky. I think we're going to catch a lot of people by surprise.”

Like Ryan Kesler a decade ago when he was playing centre Henrik Sedin, Miller is the straw that stirs the drink in Vancouver. But it’s still a hefty bar tab the Canucks are amassing.

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