‘I burn for it’: Canucks’ Miller savours shot to step up in playoffs

Iain MacIntyre and Dan Murphy discuss the Vancouver Canucks' lack of playoff experience and how the Canucks might respond to the Nashville Predators targeting their skilled players ahead of Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

VANCOUVER — The irony in the evolution of J.T. Miller is that his best years in the NHL have been spent until now without the playoff hockey required to test and validate the better version of himself.

But that’s the problem with wisdom, isn’t it? Its arrival is unpredictable and very often late.

The poorer version of Miller, when he was preoccupied with points and ice time and, in his words, “knew nothing” about the Stanley Cup Playoffs, was with the New York Rangers in the first half of his 20s. Miller was part of a Rangers organization that played 12 playoff rounds in five seasons and in 2014 lost the Stanley Cup Final.

In the five years since his 2019 trade to the Vancouver Canucks, which acted as an accelerant in Miller’s metamorphosis from the “before” to the “after” stage of himself, the power forward from East Palestine, Ohio, is 11th in NHL scoring with 402 points in 364 games.

Only five Canucks — none of them since 2011 — have posted more points in a season than the 103 Miller amassed this year before sitting out Game 82 on Thursday in Winnipeg. And yet, the All-Star centre who turned 31 in March has not played a playoff game in front of fans during these peak years.

“We had really good hockey teams,” Miller said of his formative seasons with the Rangers, who traded him in 2018 to the Tampa Bay Lightning. “But my mindset was still about me and ice time. And if you looked at my track record, my playoff stats . . . were very poor. I think that a lot of that had to do with my attitude.

“I’d play in the top-six or top-nine throughout the year, and then I get to the playoffs and didn’t play the right way, so I’d go down to the fourth line. It was kind of immaturity. You learn to grow up at some point. But weirdly enough, since I feel like I’ve learned a lot about my game, I haven’t been back to the playoffs. I haven’t been there since I was 26. That’s like 40 per cent of my career, 50 per cent of my career. That’s a big deal.”

So is the first-round series starting Sunday for the Canucks, whose core players younger than Miller have experienced only bubble hockey in the fan-less pandemic playoffs of 2020.

When they skate out into the semi-darkness and deafening roar of Rogers Arena before Game 1 against the Nashville Predators, it will be the Canuck franchise’s first home playoff game since 2015. The longest-tenured Canuck, 27-year-old winger Brock Boeser, hadn’t even been drafted when Vancouver was upset by the Calgary Flames in that year’s opening round.

As a 22-year-old, Miller logged 19 playoff games that spring for the Rangers and contributed one goal. In his first 61 playoff games, all before his 27th birthday, Miller scored three times.

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“The last four years, I just feel like my brain has kind of switched to my priorities in life,” Miller told Sportsnet. “Not getting to the playoffs has driven a lot of my frustration. I don’t think anybody on this team has played a playoff game here in this building.

“We’ve done so many good things as a team this year, but it really only matters in the playoffs. And I just want to play in those games so bad, and I know everybody’s thinking the same thing.”

Miller has transformed himself since Rick Tocchet became head coach 15 months ago.

Not only has he elevated his game, he has become dependable as a player and leader. Largely gone are the tantrums and negative body language, the self-indulgent penalties and lazy plays. Miller has learned to manage his famously volatile emotions, channeling his superpowers as a player towards good.

The concept of Canuck fans chanting “J.T. Miller! J.T. Miller!”, as they have several times in recent games, would have been inconceivable two years ago unless the mob was also holding pitchforks.

But the Stanley Cup Playoffs have not seen this version of Miller.

“I try to preach best by how I play,” he explained. “But at the same time, I’m a vocal guy. Everything that I say, the things that piss me off as a leader and the things that I want to explain to the team, are all based on how it’s going to be in the playoffs.

“It’s not that the regular season is easy; it’s just that the playoffs, there is no room and it takes a mindset and (courage) to win pucks and go to the net and just get hit by people and sticks. These were things I didn’t really care about when I was younger. Now I know that if you do those things more than the other team, you’re going to win games more times than not. And the players that do that are my favorite players in the league.

“I mean, I’m obviously not comparing myself to them, but guys like (Sidney) Crosby and (Anze) Kopitar and Ryan O’Reilly — you know, those hard-nosed centremen that take a beating but do whatever it takes. I grew up watching that, watching Joe Thornton when he was with the Sharks, Jamie Benn. I love those players. As a competitor, I revered them. Those are the players I want to become.”

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Miller will be playing against O’Reilly this series.

Led by O’Reilly, Filip Forsberg, Gustav Nyquist, Roman Josi and Ryan McDonagh, Nashville has far more experience than Vancouver at the top of its lineup.

Miller has played 78 playoff games. But the only post-season experience for Boeser, Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes and Thatcher Demko was in the Edmonton bubble. Defenceman Filip Hronek has never logged an NHL playoff game of any kind. Dakota Joshua has played one.

Playoff inexperience is one of the Canucks’ few evident disadvantages in this series, and how they navigate it and handle the rocket-blast of emotions and ferocious intensity of playoff hockey is likely to be paramount to the outcome.

“I’m excited because I know what’s coming,” Canuck assistant coach Adam Foote, who logged 170 playoff games as a player and won a pair of Stanley Cups, told Sportsnet. “But the waves are not as high as you feel sometimes when you can just be calm. You can survive it if you stick to your staples. I know it sounds corny, but (the waves) are going to come, it’s going to happen. When you get nervous, just stick to what you do well and it will all sort itself out.”

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The key is to play the same, sound way you have all season when every instinct amid the emotional typhoon of playoff hockey is to do things differently.

Miller said every single play matters. And all of those plays, no matter how little, determine success.

“Windows won’t last forever,” he said. “And I’m not getting into the window game and what that means, but when you look at the core here and how young they are, they’re not even in their prime yet. We can do something special here and we have to realize that. For the most part, teams . . . get their crack for only a couple years. And, again, I’m not labelling this group (limiting the window). But we’ve got a chance to win this year. We have a special team. We have our expectations, and we’re still building.

“I just love the playoffs. And the older I get, the more I love them because your mindset changes. And I guarantee you it will change for every single guy in here. Once you get a taste of it one time — the city, the crowd, the away crowds . . . I burn for it. It’s the greatest feeling ever.”

And you never know how long you may wait to feel it again.

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