If Garland and Höglander can be scratched, why can’t J.T. Miller?

By: Trent Leith / October 22, 2022  

On Tuesday, prior to the game in Columbus, the Canucks made it clear that Conor Garland would be a healthy scratch. He returned to the lineup on Thursday in Minnesota, while Nils Höglander tagged out and sat in the press box. Both of these lineup choices were met with criticism and head-scratching. If Garland and Höglander can be scratched, why can’t J.T. Miller?

When Garland was scratched before the Columbus game,  Boudreau said, “The way we’ve played we could have taken a lot of guys out, but I got one extra forward so I chose him.” 

This sent mixed messages to many fans. Garland has had a strong Corsi percentage of 56.6% at five-on-five. While his offensive numbers aren’t stellar this season, he still has a goal while taking only four shots. 

“I know how good he can play but I know how good a lot of these guys can play and they haven’t done it yet so I mean it’s not just Conor, he’ll play again, but we gotta get better as a group.” Boudreau said.

Though Garland hasn’t had much to show for it yet, the eye test has shown him as a relentless player on the puck who doesn’t give up on a play. Garland is second on the team in takeaways (4) in the first four games, despite only playing three of them. While the results aren’t there, the process is. Garland is far from the peak of his game, but so is nearly the entire team. 

Höglander was the next player to be healthy scratched. He has also shown a strong underlying profile with little to show for it. Höglander’s Corsi percentage is higher than Conor Garland’s with 60.6% and the third highest on the team.

However, it appears Höglander was not scratched due to his play or to make a statement but instead based on the opposition. 

“We got 13 forwards and you go down to them and you go, ‘OK, who are playing here?’ and it’s a bigger, physical team and sometimes you make decisions on that,” Bruce told the media.

“I told Höggy he’s playing pretty good. I really liked the way he’s playing. And be ready to get back [in the lineup] in a hurry. But sometimes and I’m not saying with analytics on this part sometimes you look at your opposition and you see what you need.” 

There isn’t much Höglander can do about his size or the size of the competition. However, if he makes himself more indisposable to the team, it could prevent scratches like this down the line. 

The coach’s decisions cause confusion because Garland and Höglander have been far from the weakest players in the lineup each night. 

Dakota Joshua and Nils Åman were caved in at five-on-five (with Corsi percentages of 34.6% and 35.3% respectively) leading into Thursday’s game where Höglander was scratched. It’s worth remembering that these players have most of their starts in the defensive zone. The fourth line had a strong game in Minnesota combining for a couple of goals. Prior to that – before the scratches in question – they hadn’t performed better than either Garland or Höglander.

J.T. Miller has been struggling to start this season as well. Miller has been on the ice for four goals-for, two of which are his and another he assisted on. Here’s the kicker: he has been on the ice for 13 goals of the 22 goals against so far this season.

Despite Miller’s poor play, he doesn’t seem to see anything wrong with it. “My game, where I’ve really tried to work on, is five-on-five in my own end and worrying about that first. Offence later. And if I look at the way I’ve been playing there, I feel really good about what I’ve done so far,” Miller told Patrick Johnston of Post Media.

“but I’m not going to change the way I’m playing, away from the puck and in my own end because I don’t think I’ve given up much of anything there.” Miller continued.

This is in direct contrast to what he told the media after the Canucks loss to the Philidelphia Flyers, “I take it upon myself to be a better player. It’s not playing to my standards. So I’m not going to comment on behalf of the team, the team’s battling.”

“I’m just disappointed. This isn’t about me, I’m not trying to make it about me but I’m not gonna sit here to talk about how we played when I can’t even lead by example right now. … I thought I had a good start (on Wednesday) but I just feel like I’m a little irrelevant. Being on the ice for every goal, I don’t know what to say.”

If the healthy scratches were truly because Bruce wanted to dress the best players at his disposal players like Åman and Joshua would not be chosen. They are depth pieces: low upside, effective, but bottom-of-the-roster. A player like Garland has much more to offer. Even when he isn’t at his peak, based on the analytics, he delivers more than the other two. 

I recognize that sometimes you need to retool your lineup based on your opponent, but usually, the best way to win in the NHL is to dress players that are playing well. 

While players like Garland and Höglander aren’t getting on the score sheet every game, they are far from not playing well. Whereas Joshua, prior to Thursday’s game, had 0 points in his first four games and a poor analytic profile, and Miller has been far from the player the Canucks will be paying for next season. 

If the healthy scratches are intended to get players into better shape by firing a shot across the bow, there is no better candidate to send a message to than J.T. Miller. If Garland was considered to have played so poorly that it warranted a night off, I don’t see how the coach could be watching Miller and think his play was acceptable. 

Is Miller kept in the lineup based on past performance? Is it optics based on his lucrative new contract? Neither of these are good enough reasons in my mind. Miller’s last season is no longer relevant and his contract doesn’t start until next year. 

If the coaching staff is taking out players from higher up the lineup in favour of depth players, all the players should be graded on the same curve. Does Boudreau really find Miller’s performance to this point acceptable?