“There’s only one happy team at the draft — the one that won it all.”
That sage summation from a National Hockey League executive, echoed for many years on the draft floor, remains relevant today. Teams are open for business to shed salary, add key components and build for the present and future to remain relevant.
Vancouver Canucks president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford has been a player before, during and after drafts. It’s not a stretch suggest he’ll be drawing from that experience in Montreal on July 7-8.
With a need to create salary cap space, get younger and faster, support an emerging young core with structure and a grittier bottom-six forward mix, while also adding right-shot prospect depth on the back end and at centre, this could be a summer of roster transition.
Topping that list could be JT Miller.
If the Canucks can’t create cap space to reward their top scorer — and can convince ownership that long-range planning trumps coming up short in a playoff push — then their best trade chip will attract attention.
Miller was on the trade-deadline radar for the New York Rangers this season and a number of suitors could be seeking a high output and versatile difference-maker, who can play center or wing and put a club over the top in a Stanley Cup quest .
Like the cost of living, the trade cost to acquire Miller in July will be more than it was in February.
Back then it started with center Filip Chityl, 22, a 2017 first-round pick in 2017. But he finished the regular season with just 22 points (8-14) in 67 games. He had the same output in 25 fewer games in 2020-21.
Right-shot defenseman Braden Schneider, 20, a 2020 first-rounder was also on the radar, but managed just 11 points (2-9) in 43 games this season and the Rangers don’t want to part with his potential.
The Canucks could now push for 2020 first overall pick in left-winger Alexis Lafrenière, 20, in a revamped package. He had 31 points (19-12) in 79 games this regular season and four game-winning goals. His former agent is current Canucks assistant general manager Emilie Castonguay.
Trade-package scenarios merit discussion because coming up with the cash to extend Miller, Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat will be difficult.
One NHL source suggested a sign-and-trade scenario with restricted free-agent Boeser to free up cap space for Miller and Horvat. However, the Canucks seem intent on extending the winger at a reasonable term and salary.
Asset management is selling high and Miller might be in play in Montreal. Rutherford indicated that time frame could be an indicator of where the franchise is at with its roster and Miller options. Waiting until the 2023 trade deadline could be too late.
Regardless, extension numbers could be numbing.
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Miller, 29, has comparable production leverage to command $8 million annually over five or six years after a monster 99-point season (32-67) that placed him ninth in league scoring (all figures are in US dollars). He was also tied for a third in power-play points with 38 (8-30) and led the Canucks in faceoff efficiency at 54.1 per cent.
All that doesn’t scream discount, especially with a year remaining on his deal at a bargain $5.25-million cap hit and $4.5 million in actual salary. The Canucks would need to buck up after the draft.
Comparable with Tomas Hertl and Mika Zibanejad are vital because Miller has outperformed the duo and is arguably more important to his club on a nightly basis.
In the last three seasons, Miller had 217 regular-season points while Zibanejad had 206 and Hertl 143. Miller was also 15th overall in points per game this season with 1.24, while Zibanejad was 51st at 1.00 and Hertl was 115th at 0.78.
Zibanejad, 29, agreed to an eight-year, $68-million deal with the Rangers on Oct. 10, 2021 — a mammoth leap from his expiring $5.35-million cap hit. And Hertl, 28, signed an eight-year, $65.1-million extension with the San Jose Sharks on March 16. His expiring hit this season was $5.625 million.
As for Miller, when the season wound down he was buoyed by the present and the future.
“I’m really proud of our guys,” he said. “It’s really easy to roll over when you’re 8-15-2 and write the season off. We’ve done everything we can to prove we can play with the best and it’s really exciting.”
Is that enough to sway Miller? His last and biggest contract from him ca n’t be about emotion, it must be about business.
Canucks coach Bruce Boudreau is sold on the high-risk, high-reward Miller because the good always outweighed the occasional bad, especially suicide cross-ice passes.
“It’s his competitiveness,” said the coach. “Sometimes, it rubs people the wrong way, but he plays with pain and he’s an unknown superstar. He’s got so much pride. When he doesn’t do well, he knows it and gets angry about it, which I have no problem with.
“He’s one really good leader and I would take him on my team any time, any day.”
Which, of course, brings up the final question.
How do you part with your best player?
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