Why We are Still Waiting on a J.T. Miller Trade

J.T. Miller Trade
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The heavily-anticipated J.T. Miller trade still hasn’t happened. Why the heck not?

Waiting on a J.T. Miller Trade

When new management arrived in Vancouver, everyone – us included – expected fireworks. And in one sense, they delivered. The big coaching change was followed by firing the general manager and then… not much else. No big, dramatic announcements. No overhaul of the players. A piecemeal gathering of white-collar employees in white-collar positions, sure. Otherwise?

NHL free agent frenzy

It was nearly two months before Patrik Allvin was finally named the new GM. For an executive with a huge reputation for wheeling-and-dealing, team president Jim Rutherford was definitely taking his sweet time changing the on-ice product. Indeed, those moves were left for Allvin to manage.

The sum total of those trades has been uninspiring. Travis Dermott came in; Travis Hamonic and Tyler Motte left. The team gained a net total of one fourth-round pick. Hardly the massive revamp fans imagined – especially with a huge bargaining chip in their pocket just waiting to get played.

But there is a surprising twist to the ongoing party game of speculating where Miller will go. The team doesn’t want to move him.

Of Salary Caps and Cash

The salary cap is increasing next year, but just by a paltry $1 million. If it’s going to be spent getting Curtis Lazar, that’s putting it to pretty good use. As of right now, the Canucks have a complete team that needs to use Michael Ferland’s injured reserve space to be cap compliant, but they can do it. The cap will almost certainly increase again for 2022-23, but also by a small amount. And that’s where the trouble starts.

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Vancouver’s two big deals in the near future are coming due then. Both J.T. Miller and Bo Horvat have expiring contracts, and both have earned raises. Horvat’s will be smaller than Miller’s, but that doesn’t mean his deal is less important. The assumption is that his contract will be “easier” – though nobody knows exactly what shape it will take.

In three years, the salary cap is going to increase significantly. But that’s just a little too late for the Canucks. Some $2.4 million of dead money will be coming off the books for 2023-24, and that’s going to help. But they’ve also used all of Ferland’s LTIR space recently, and that too will be gone. It comes down, once again, to what Miller wants, what the team expects, and how much risk each is willing to take.

Adam Smith or Albert Camus

To be clear: no one’s a villain here. Negotiations are part of any pro sport, and it is different from other jobs. In the amount of money risked, if nothing else. These athletes can do what no one else can – right up until someone takes their jobs from them. And the businesses paying the players want what motivates all businesses: profit.

Players deserve to make what they can in the brief time that is their professional careers. No one maintains a high level of play for 30 years* so getting paid as much as possible as soon as possible matters. Businesses are looking to increase profits by investing in the players – who may or may not pay off. Short-changing young players because they can comes at the expense of paying for them when those players have proven themselves. The rest is the details.

The trick is in the customers. Professional sports is an emotion-driven business. Fans form attachments to teams – and to players. Players who are beloved by the fans sell not only tickets but also jerseys, posters, air time and advertising. That holds true for the players as well: the more popular they are, the more opportunities to make money emerge. Plus they, too, can be affected emotionally by the fans and the team they play for.

Players can’t afford to play exclusively for the joy of it – they simply don’t have the time. But no one wants to be miserable at work, whatever the pay is. Likewise, teams can’t afford to get too attached to the players, indulging them beyond usefulness. They need to spend where it’s wisest.

On the Ledge(r)

A J.T. Miller trade makes the most sense from a purely financial standpoint. With the Canucks, Miller has been remarkably productive. He’s scored 74 goals and 217 points in his 202 regular-season games in Vancouver. Last season’s 1.24 points per game mark is the highest of his career. Even if his production plummets by 20 points next season, that’s still a point per game. Miller’s an acknowledged leader on the ice, too, earning an ‘A’ in 2021-22.

He’s also 29 years old. By his numbers alone, he should be a $10 million man, or something close to it. But for how long? As we noted, he wants to make as much money as he can before his career comes to an end. But the Canucks aren’t really the team to do that, given what their timeline looks like and the difficulty of fitting a competitive team into the salary cap. The Miller trade would solve both sides’ issues.

For cost efficiency, nothing beats an entry-level contract. If the Canucks can also bring in a draft pick and a veteran player? They won’t be as good as Miller in his prime – and probably not for a few years, if ever – but they will be cheaper. Losing Miller can be an effective use of assets.

Filling the Stands by Making One

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If the proposed returns have been as underwhelming as is rumoured, then his actual value may be higher on the team. Teams know his contract is coming due. But a team pushing for the Stanley Cup can find room for his $5.25 million cap hit this season. As for an extension, they’ll have to see. Perhaps a deal gets done immediately, perhaps they wait to see where his numbers go before negotiating.

And that’s where the risk for Miller himself.

The Canucks obviously have a deal on the table, waiting for his signature. How long and for how much no one is saying, of course. But what it is, is guaranteed. Since his trade to Vancouver, Miller has been given bountiful opportunities. His ice time with the Canucks has averaged five minutes higher than when he was with either the Tampa Bay Lightning or New York Rangers. He won’t get put in the bottom six of whatever team trades for him, but he might not get the opportunities available with his current team, either.

Add to that the chance of injury or simply declining numbers as he ages when he needs to renegotiate a deal. He almost certainly won’t hit 99 points again, and however you slice it, that’s a weaker point to bargain from.

J.T. Miller Trade Balance

It’s coming down to a balance of mercenary needs and emotional wants. Anyone pretending that what happens in a dressing room is irrelevant is a fool. Teams need emotional leaders over not only a long season but in – hopefully – a playoff battle. Fans likewise tend to love the “heart and soul” guys who give frank answers when they lose. And they hate giving frank answers.

Age matters here, certainly. The Canucks are unlikely to compete seriously for a few more seasons, yet. They could make the playoffs, certainly, but they aren’t a Cup contender. However, teams don’t win without having a couple of useful, grizzled veterans filling the ranks. And Miller could certainly be one of those in four years’ time.

The team will need to overpay him for that role. His skills will be lower, but probably not by all that much. And the salary cap will likely be $10-ish million higher by then. Will the team be able to keep their higher-scoring players long enough for Miller to be pushed down the lineup? Maybe?

That’s the tightrope over a river the team and J.T. Miller share. Miller has said he wants to stay. The team clearly wants to keep him. His jersey is not a rare one in the arena’s stands, but just as many fans want to see what he could bring in a trade.

As of now, the only sure thing is that whatever move is made – trade, re-signing, negotiating through the season – it’s going to be hard to keep everyone dry.

 

*With one possible exception. Okay, two.