J.T. Miller hasn’t thought twice about having the best statistical season of his career stopped in its tracks.
The frustration of seeing the Vancouver Canucks’ resurgent campaign put on ice is another matter.
“Our team is really coming together,” Miller said on a conference call Wednesday. “We’re learning a lot about each other. We established an identity and we were going to be right in the thick of things.”
That was then.
The NHL, along with most other sports in North America, suspended its schedule last month in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that’s swept across the globe.
Hockey is far down the list of priorities with thousands of dead around the world and the economy in shambles — Miller described health-care workers as “inspiring” — but potentially not seeing 2019-20 through would be disappointing for a franchise trending upwards after some incredibly dark days.
And even if the season does resume in some form later this spring or summer, it won’t be the same.
“It just sucks that we did a lot of good things to get to where we are now,” Miller said. “It was going to be an exciting finish … we don’t know what’s going to happen.
“We were getting into it and the last little push.”
The Canucks, who sat on the playoff bubble when the NHL went on hiatus March 12, acquired Miller at last June’s draft from the salary cap-strapped Tampa Bay Lightning for a minor-league goalie, a 2019 third-round draft pick and a conditional first-rounder.
The native of East Palestine, Ohio, had cracked the 20-goal mark three times in his career since getting plucked 15th overall by the New York Rangers in 2011, but was stuck behind offensive catalysts like Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point for parts of two seasons in Tampa.
He scored just 13 times in 2018-19 after signing a five-year, US$26.25-million contract with the Lightning in June 2018, and with Point needing a new contract, Miller was the odd man out.
The move to Vancouver, however, was a welcome one. And he’s arrived better than advertised.
The 27-year-old already set career-highs in goals (27) and assists (45), and had a team-leading 72 points, in 69 games this season logging big minutes with star centre and reigning Calder Trophy winner Elias Pettersson at the time of the pause.
“If you’re surrounded by the team’s best players and put in the best opportunities … the production’s just going to come naturally,” said Miller, who’s 25 power-play points are tied with star rookie defenceman Quinn Hughes. “I’m finding another level of my game the older I get.
“I know what works in my game. I try to you bring that every day.”
While he’s officially a winger on Pettersson’s line, Miller takes most of the faceoffs and sits just behind Philadelphia Flyers centre Sean Couturier for the best mark in the league at 59.2 per cent.
“We both really like to make plays,” Miller said of Pettersson. “It’s finding the fine line of making the extra play or getting rid of the puck or shooting the puck.
“We think similarly along those lines. I learned a lot from him this year … in practice and in the game, where his head is and where his eyes are and where he delivers the puck or shoots the puck. It’s very impressive. He makes it very easy to play with him. When we play to each other’s strengths, that’s when we have most of our success.”
It’s also not often that a player new to a locker room takes on a leadership role, but the talkative Miller has embraced the opportunity to speak up.
“From when I was 19 until now I played on some teams with guys that were unbelievable leaders … I just stayed out of the way and tried to be a sponge,” he said. “I want to win really badly and I’m trying to make that the No. 1 priority for a lot of the younger guys.”
Vancouver sat just below the playoff cut line when the NHL suspended play, but based on points percentage is slightly ahead of the Calgary Flames for third in the Pacific Division.
The Canucks have missed the post-season four straight springs, five of the last six, and have won just three playoff games since the team got within a whisker of winning the 2011 Stanley Cup.
Names of the past like Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Roberto Luongo, Alexandre Burrows and Kevin Bieksa are long gone, but a new crop of talent including Pettersson, Hughes, first-year captain Bo Horvat and sniper Brock Boeser have fans dreaming of better days.
“I always wondered what it would be like to be up here in a Canadian market,” Miller said. “My experience in the city’s been super supportive, even when we were losing some games.
“It’s an exciting atmosphere to be in.”
It’s also anyone’s guess when that feeling will return, but Miller has no intention of slowing down.
“I’m confident my abilities to have another good season and potentially do it again,” Miller said. “I’m not too worried about myself at this point.”
This report by The Canadian Press on April 1, 2020.
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