VANCOUVER – J.T. Miller had a surprising answer when asked Friday how the Vancouver Canucks get out of trouble after opening their season with a 0-3-2 road trip that broke National Hockey League records for blown leads.
“I don’t feel like we’re in it,” the 29-year-old centre said. “Like, you know, it’s not that bad — it’s five games. And we’re trending in the right direction, whether people realize it or not. We have a ton of belief. It’s upbeat and we’re excited to play tomorrow, we’re excited to be home. It’s not down.
“There are some moments of the road trip that were pressing, no question. But it’s just going to make us stronger at the end of the day.”
This came a few minutes after coach Bruce Boudreau, who could really use a win Saturday against the Buffalo Sabres in the Canucks’ home-opener at Rogers Arena, told the same reporters: “The playoffs aren’t won in October unless you’re playing baseball.”
No, but as this same team demonstrated last fall, you may not be able to make the Stanley Cup playoffs in October and November, but you sure can miss them.
Despite a rocket ride with Boudreau over the final two-thirds of last season, the Canucks never recovered from their 6-14-2 start, which included three wins in 10 games in October.
That’s three more wins than the Canucks have now. This is the context that frames the current angst on the West Coast over a hockey team that has so often disappointed.
And whether the team is “in it” or not at the moment, Miller undoubtedly is.
The 29-year-old center, the emotional leader and beating heart of the Canucks, has one even-strength point this season, has been on the ice for 13 of 22 goals surrendered in all situations, and Miller’s five-game “peak” in expected-goals-for (a measure of puck possession and scoring chances at five-on-five) is just 36 per cent.
He is one of the Canucks’ most influential players and, starting next season, will be their highest-paid one. When he’s not going, it’s difficult for the team to go without him. Miller is too big to be a passenger. This is the key difference for him now versus earlier in his career.
Every player – every single player in the NHL – goes through spells where they are not nearly as good as they’d like to be. But that has rarely happened to Miller for any extended period since a 2019 trade from the Tampa Bay Lightning gave him a launch pad to a new level.
When he struggled in Tampa or, before that, with the New York Rangers, Miller did so as a middle- or bottom-six forward largely hidden in the shade of teammates spotlighted higher up the lineup. With the Canucks, Miller is at centre stage, constantly in the hot glare of reporters and fans.
“It’s more of a spotlight for you guys, being more of a focal point,” Miller said Friday. “But for me, nothing changes. You know, my struggles versus what people think are struggles also are different. So I don’t look at it as much more of a focal point. If I’m not playing up to my standard, I know that.
“I feel like in the last couple of games, I’ve actually started to get more comfortable. I feel pretty good. I told you guys at the beginning of camp, my main focus is to be hard to play against five on five. I feel like I’ve been pretty good at my own end, winning puck battles and being smart and responsible. And at some point, I think the puck will sort of end up on my tape a little more. But right now, it’s kind of hard to come by.
“For myself, you know. . . the timing will get better, the game will open up. But I think that it’s important for me to not be impatient and change the way I’m playing. I think that at some point, I’ve got to believe that it’s coming.”
Miller had 99 points last season, ninth in NHL scoring. It may turn out to be a career year, but it was not an aberration. The power forward from Ohio has been a consistent point-per-game force in Vancouver, 12th in league scoring over his three seasons with the Canucks.
Team president Jim Rutherford told Sportsnet this week that Miller “over tries” sometimes because “it’s what drives him. He wants to win, he wants to do well.”
If there was any doubt about the latter, then the Canucks really would be in trouble.
“I’ve been my own worst enemy, I guess, forever,” he said. “But that kind of makes me. . . the player I am as well. I wouldn’t say it’s pressure. Like, I don’t feel pressure. I think that the older I’m getting, the more I understand there’s a way to play for me. It’s very, very simple. . . when I commit to that, and don’t try to get off on a different game plan because let’s say the points aren’t there or the touches aren’t there. The last two games, I felt like I played pretty darn well, but I didn’t have a lot of puck touches. So it’s kind of hard to see that I guess from a boxscore standpoint.
“Yeah, I’m hard on myself. I think I expect a high level of play for myself, and I know that when I play to that level, I give our team a better chance to win. So I’m not going to change.”
“As long as he continues to be as competitive as he is and (has) the will to win and is the good teammate that he is, then the other stuff is going to happen,” Boudreau said of Miller. “I’ve got no qualms about where J.T. is going to be and where he’s going to end up and how important he is to this team.”
• The Canucks did not practise Friday but players were brought to a rink in Burnaby for meetings after their early-hours arrival home from Thursday’s 4-3 overtime loss in Minnesota. . . Boudreau offered no medical updates on injured defencemen Travis Dermott, Riley Stillman and Tucker Poolman, but said prospect Jack Rathbone will make his season debut on the blue line against Buffalo.