VANCOUVER — The months-long conjecture about JT Miller’s future with the Vancouver Canucks was always about what the hockey team would do with its best striker.
The discussion was never about what JT Miller wanted, which became even more apparent Friday when the Canucks announced a sudden and unexpected end to contract drama: a seven-year, $56 million US extension for a player who turns 30 when his next deal starts in 2023.
Nine months after he inherited the National Hockey League team — and all of its strengths and weaknesses — Canucks president Jim Rutherford still hasn’t displayed the gunslinger mentality to trade players that was his management history.
But he loaded with both barrels when re-signing Miller, who led the Canucks last season with 99 points and 12 ise in league scoring since Vancouver surrendered a first-round draft pick three years ago to acquire the mighty American from the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“I always felt we could keep him as long as he wanted to stay here,” Rutherford told Sportsnet in a phone call on Friday night. “And it was pretty clear that he wanted to be here, he wanted this to be his home, and that was a key factor. We would have liked to move a contract or two to not have that (salary cap) pressure on us. . . next season.
“But given the importance of JT, we just said, OK, we’re going to be like a lot of other teams and take that risk and deal with it when the time comes so we can do this for the camp.”
There is a chance that Miller will outperform his contract in the next four or five years. Last season, he was ninth in scoring, but his $8 million cap hit equals 50e in the NHL.
Still, 29 years old and with a year left on his current $5.25 million bargain, the center will likely be overpaid when his next contract expires.
Miller’s agent, Brian Bartlett, said his client “at least left some money on the table.” The contract is seven years, not eight, and $8 million a season, not $9 million. But the Canucks are still paying a ton of money to keep their best forward — and one of their most emotional and influential leaders — because any trade would likely bring the team back in the short term and management believes in Miller.
“This is a player you have to take some risk with,” explained Rutherford. “You don’t know when players will reach that age (mid-thirties). Some players are still playing just fine and some are starting to decline a bit more. But for what JT has done for the Canucks, what he can do in the future, we felt it was worth it. He’s a good player, he wants to be here. And I have a feeling he will find a way to contribute even in the final stages of that contract.”
Miller and general manager Patrik Allvin, co-architect of the contract, spoke to media on Tuesday.
“JT is absolutely ecstatic,” Bartlett told Sportsnet. “If nothing else, JT is a competitor and he wants to win. And he feels this gives him a great shot at winning a Stanley Cup before his career is over. He loves Vancouver and is excited to be there for the rest of his career.
“This is what he wanted. He loves the boys, the city. Fifty-six million for a 30-year-old is great. But if you step back and look at the market, at least he has some money on the table.” Vancouver is where he wanted to be.”
But until the Canucks moved significantly this week, it felt like an opportunity — Miller’s age and undeniable market value pushed against the team’s ongoing cap problems and the evolutionary curve of Vancouver’s younger core players.
One of those players, 27-year-old captain Bo Horvat, also has a one-year contract and is in talks with management about a long-term extension. Winger Brock Boeser, 25, signed a $20 million three-year contract in July.
Miller has more than money on his mind this weekend after his son, Owen, was born on Thursday. Miller and his wife, Natalie, also have young daughters Scotlyn and Scarlett. The family is based in Pittsburgh.
But Vancouver is now home too.
“My best friends are here, my teammates are here,” Miller told us in April during the final week of the regular season. “We want to win here and I want to win here. I’ve said all the time I’ve been getting these questions that my main focus has been winning with this group. And it’s very, very exciting to see how far we’ve come .”
“You feel the hunger in the fan base,” Bartlett repeated on Friday. “You feel the desire in the city to have a winner. He’s there every day with these guys in practice, every day with them, win or lose. He knows there is a lot of talent in the locker room and a lot of good guys in that room. There’s a lot of belief that if everyone pushes in the right direction, as everyone’s game matures together, they can really do something with it.”
The seven-year deal comes with a no-movement clause, softened by an amended no-trade clause over the last three seasons.
Miller’s 32 goals and 99 points last season were career highs and made him the top scoring Canuck since Hall-of-Famers Henrik and Daniel Sedin won NHL titles in 2010 and 2011. Miller has been a point-per-game player ever since arriving in Vancouver and believes what he’s done offensively with the Canucks is lasting.
“I really believe that if I come and have the right mindset about what makes me a good player … I usually play better and points come and we win more,” he said in April. “It’s so simple, but it took me a long time to figure that out.”
The Canucks would have been a unicycle-riding clown without a circus had they gone into this season with Miller’s status unresolved.
“The idea is that nothing hangs over the team,” Rutherford agrees. “But you can’t just make a deal for that reason. You have to make it if you think it’s a fair deal for both parties, and we got to a point where both parties felt there was a deal we could live with. But I think the word ‘relief’ is a fair word.”