VANCOUVER — Like nearly half the players on the Vancouver Canucks, J.T. Miller is on his third head coach in 14 months.
And with another 7 ½ years under contract, including all of the $56-million-US extension he signed last summer, chances are Miller will probably go through another coach or two after Rick Tocchet. That’s just reality in the National Hockey League. Coaches don’t get seven-year contract extensions, and Tocchet’s deal with the Canucks is for the rest of this season and two more.
In his first press conference after succeeding Bruce Boudreau, Tocchet was asked more questions Sunday about Miller than any other player. The 29-year-old power forward is paramount to whatever the Canucks are going to become — good or bad — which puts Miller at the top of Tocchet’s to-do list when it comes to fixing the defensively-inept team.
“I was an emotional player, you know?” Tocchet said. “But there’s different emotion. It’s okay to have emotion on the bench and tell your linemate ‘let’s go.’ But I think on the ice, you’ve got to be careful of your body language. That’s not an indictment on J.T.; I’m just saying you can’t start backchecking because you’re mad at somebody.”
And later: “Can we get better at game management? I think that’s something that will help, and it will help J.T. Sometimes you’ve got to live for another shift. Everything can’t be high-risk. You’re up 3-2, if the play’s there to make. . . but you can’t throw pucks in the middle. And like I said, I’m not picking on J.T., I’m just talking in general.”
You could have sold tickets to Tocchet’s meeting with Miller before the new coach’s first practice Monday at Rogers Arena.
But, ultimately, it’s up to the player to address his problems. And Miller recognizes there are some.
“There’s been a handful of (negative) moments this year that have really defined my season,” Miller told Sportsnet after the tense practice. “I understand in this market, this is what you’re going to get. But that’s not my character to play like that.
“There’s plenty of times where I’m hauling my ass on the backcheck. But the bad ones are bad. Like, I know they are. I’m the guy that’s last up at night thinking about that. I’m not thinking about what everybody’s going to say. Whether it’s the end of a shift or this or that, I know what I did. It’s not me saying, ‘Screw that, I don’t care.’ No, that’s just me, like, so in my own head that it’s like it turns into a blackout for a very brief amount of time.
“I’m still a leader on the team here. And leading by example is not doing that and I fully understand that. It’s been something on my chest all year because I feel like I’ve been kind of typecast for what kind of player I’ve been this year. But it’s just been a handful of moments.”
The worst of these occurred during a 3-2 loss in Calgary on New Year’s Eve when Miller turned the puck over before the first two Flames goals. On one play, he ambled on the backcheck, on the other he went for an untimely line change.
Miller was roasted on social media and by Hockey Night in Canada panelists Kevin Bieksa, Kelly Hrudey and Elliotte Friedman.
His lackadaisical errors came after Miller put himself in the spotlight by yelling at teammate Collin Delia to go to the bench for an extra attacker — and whacking the top of the net with his stick to send the goalie scurrying — near the end of Vancouver’s 4-2 road loss to the Winnipeg Jets two nights earlier.
It seems like J.T. Miller’s name has been trending on Twitter since then.
“I don’t want that to happen again because I’m trying to teach guys how to play the right way on this team, and that ain’t it,” Miller said Monday. “So I completely understand. It’s been something on my mind and it’s something I’m trying to work on.
“There’s been a handful of moments that I’ve made bad decisions based on my emotions taking over. Yes, there have been some times where that has become bad habit, and I think it comes with, like you said, the shitshow we’re in and losing games and feeling like it’s Game 7 every night. It’s just emotional for me.”
Through 46 games, Miller has 18 goals and 41 points — 20 of them on the power play. The narrative of his season is that he has been awful, but he’s still likely to finish with 30 goals and 70-plus points.
His shots-for percentage has dipped this season to 48.2 percent from 52.4 during last season’s 99-point career year. His expected goals have dropped to 43.4 from 51.8. But Miller’s scoring differential has been hurt by a five-point collapse in his PDO — team shooting percentage plus save percentage when Miller is on the ice. His on-ice shooting percentage of 6.79 is one of lowest on the team, roughly half the rate at which shots go into the opposition net when Elias Pettersson, Ilya Mikheyev and Andrei Kuzmenko are on the ice for the Canucks. Miller is among NHL leaders with seven shots against the post or crossbar, more iron that he hit all of last season.
So there’s some bad luck involved. But there really is no excuse for bad backchecks or lazy line changes.
“Just trying to look in the mirror at how can I be better on the ice, how can I be a better leader, how can I control my emotions better?” Miller said. “At the same time, it’s hard. It’s very, very hard when I play with a lot of emotion to keep it completely under control. But at the end of the day, it has revolved around playing the right way and winning hockey games. And when we’re not getting those results. . . I’m mad at myself 99 per cent of the time, no matter how it may come off.”
As he discussed previously with reporters, Miller said he has been working since he was a kid to channel his emotions and not let self-frustration turn into negative body language that affects teammates.
He also said the difficult season — for him and his team — has not made him question the commitment he made last summer to staying when he could have waited a year and gone anywhere in free agency.
“It has been very hard emotionally,” Miller said of the season. “It just feels like we’re stuck. But I think that slowly, if you try to envision the big picture here, it’s going to go the right way. I want to be here when we’re at the top because I still believe at some point this team has the core pieces to win. I don’t know what it’s going to look like here the next couple of months; it might get a little muddy in the water again. But at the same time, I’m here for the long haul because I believe in the process. I’m sure I’m going to get booed again and that’s alright. But at the same time, I definitely put pressure on myself to win hockey games.”
In his first practice under Tocchet, Miller was moved back to centre from the wing and skated between Sheldon Dries and Conor Garland on the Canucks’ third line.
The Tocchet era begins Tuesday with a visit from the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday.