Miller’s Time at Centre, Canucks Can Capitalize

By: Brayden Fengler / March 10, 2021  

J.T. Miller didn’t have as rough of a start to the season as Elias Pettersson, or as explosive of a start as his other usual linemate Brock Boeser. Miller started out the season stuck in the same middle ground as Canucks captain Bo Horvat. The two players showed some exciting moments of play early on, and gave no reason for concern, yet they left some Canucks fans wanting more. Unlike Bo, however, before Miller’s time at centre, his attitude had been noticeably sour at times. In many games early on, Miller’s exclamations could be heard rattling throughout the empty buildings, more noticeably than any of his teammates.

Perhaps all J.T. needed though, was a change of scenery. Petey, Miller’s usual centerman, has been absent from the lineup for the last three games, due to an undisclosed upper body injury. An injury which according to coach Travis Green, will keep Pettersson out of action for another week yet. With this unfortunate news, comes a ray of sunshine, as it looks as though the door has opened for Miller, to potentially step into a regular role at centre ice. A role that has seemed to ignite his spark for the game, and may just be the best place for him going forward.

An Unexpected “Lotto Line” Jackpot

Even though Miller’s Lotto Line mate has been MIA, Miller has still played most of his minutes with his usual wing partner Brock Boeser. In addition, Nils Hoglander has come up to join the two on the first line. The Hoglander-Miller-Boeser line has been the second most deployed line for Vancouver in the last 3 games. Second only to the captains line. The Pearson-Horvat-Virtanen line has earned the most ice time in the past three outings with 26%, to Millers’ line which has seen 18% deployed.

Miller’s play has really seemed to “click” in recent games, and it seems to be in large part because of his new found regular position at centre ice. Miller made this observation very unambiguous after Saturday’s game, stating that he feels more “engaged” while in his new role.

In Miller’s first month of play, he recorded less than a point per game, with 4 goals and 12 assists after 17 games. He earned a total of 30 shots by the end of those first contests, with his shooting percentage sitting at 13.3%. Those stats took Miller up to Feb 17th, since then the Canucks have played 10 games, with the later half of those 10 granting Miller the most time up at centre ice.

In just the most recent 10 games Miller has recorded the same number of goals as he had in the first 17 games of the season, for a total of 4, as well as 6 assists. He also only had 7 less shots over the recent 10 game stretch, than he did in his first month of play. His shooting percentage has also bumped up to 17.4%. This along with the fact that Miller has been able to produce 5% more shot attempts overall in his last 10 games compared to his first 17.

Canucks and Miller Show Equal Improvement

It’s great to see Miller improve his game, but it’s made all the more sweet by the fact that his team is improving at the same time. The Canucks are on a 3 game winning streak, a feat they have not managed to complete since they waltzed their way to three easy wins against the Ottawa Senators in January. To see the Canucks show signs of finding their groove, all while their star player remains out of the line up, shows signs of promise for the club as a whole. At the very least, their recent wins are a much needed morale boost for a team that up until a week ago had been losing a large majority of their contests.

When the Alien Touches Back Down

When the prayers are finally answered and the lord and savior Elias Petterson re-emerges onto the Canucks game day roster, what happens to Miller? How does the top six shake out?

One option is to simply thank Miller for a job well done and push him back to a role on Petey’s wing. Miller and Brock are clearly clicking, so who’s to say once Pettersson is back in the mix, that the chemistry there wouldn’t help spark the line as a whole?

The team may see this past week as Miller simply busting out of a funk, but not as a need to restructure their lineup. However I believe a better path for the Canucks would be for them not to mess with a good thing. A thing which has allowed them to win their recent series against the division’s best team the Toronto Maple Leafs. Not to mention, also holding public enemy number one Tyler Toffoli off the scoresheet in their win over the Montreal Canadiens.

Potential Line Combinations

Hoglander – Miller – Boeser
Pettersson – Horvat – Gaudette

Welcome back Petey, you’re now a second line winger. Is that fair for him? Probably not, but this move would simply be done in the spirit of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. This would allow the Canucks to keep together their second most utilized line of the last three games, without shuffling the location of their captain as well.

This is the approach to take if Green really wants to ride out this new found spark of Miller’s, until it’s conclusion. Will Miller and his line be just as productive until the end of the season? Maybe they will be, but there is also no harm in switching things up again later on this season. There is however potentially more harm that can be done to the chemistry of the team, if Green puts an end to a good thing too early.

Pettersson – Miller – Boeser
Hoglander – Horvart – Gaudette

Of the two players who have played wingers to Miller, I feel as though Boeser has been the most pivotal to his Miller’s success. Boeser is now far from a spring chicken in the NHL, at 24 years old, the same can’t be said about rookie Nils Hoglander however. Miller seems to have more things going his way when Boeser’s added NHL experience is by Miller’s side. Hoglander has definitely been a big part of the line, but if one player has to go, I think it’s Hoglander that gets the demotions.

Adam Gaudette, who I also snuck into the second line in my first option, is I think a good choice to play alongside the captain. His situation has been compared to that of Jake Virtanen in some respects, and with that in mind, I think the more chances the Canucks can give Gaudette the better for his development. I hesitate to want to move Gaudette down any further in this imaginary situation where I control the Canucks’ bench. Maybe you’ll hear more about this topic later in the week from another writer here at… Maybe, maybe not, who’s to say really.

Hoglander – Pettersson – Boeser
Pearson – Miller – Virtanen

Roussel – Horvat – Gaudette

Lastly this option allows Petey to retake his throne as the number one centre, while also allowing Miller to slot right behind him in the line up. Obviously the big elephant in the room with this one, is that Bo is now a third line centre. That is no knock on Bo, it would just simply have to be the reality in my opinion, if Pettersson slots back into his position and Miller keeps his. This combo would definitely make the team very top heavy, and no matter how you arrange the bottom six in this instance, it’s not gonna be very pretty. Although. Just imagine if you will, a “Pettersson, Miller, Horvat” centre group. Now that is depth up the middle. The wings would definitely be thinned out on some pairings, no matter how you slice it, but that is a top three centre core that would be hard to hate.

This option also does the previously (2 paragraphs ago) unthinkable and keeps Gaudette as a bottom 6 forward while allowing Virtanen more ice time up top to showcase his “skills” (hopefully showcasing them to buyers that start ringing Jim’s phone). This combo also places a more veteran presence on Miller’s the left side, in Pearson. He would be there to hopefully play it a bit safe, and make up for any blunders by Jake or his new found centreman.

You Love to See Them Smile.

A bad game, that leads into a bad mood, which leads into more bad games, can have a poisonous effect on a locker room. Miller’s early season discrepancies may still be just under the surface, but from an outside perspective, it seems as though Miller has shaken off most of the issues that pledged him earlier this season. Green and his coaching staff would be wise to do everything they can to preserve this new found momentum, in the case of both Miller and the team as a whole.