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Miller paying early dividends for Canucks with production, leadership

Forward tied for most points on Vancouver, which has won six of past seven, after offseason trade

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

J.T. Miller has been what the Vancouver Canucks hoped he would be when they acquired him in a trade from the Tampa Bay Lightning on June 22.

Maybe better.

He has been arguably the Canucks' best player early this season, and this is a team with lots of young talent on a 6-1-0 run entering its game against the Washington Capitals at Rogers Arena on Friday (10 p.m. ET; ESPN+, SN1, NBCSWA+, NHL.TV).

The forward has 10 points (four goals, six assists) in nine games, tied for the Vancouver lead with linemate Elias Pettersson (two goals, eight assists). Next on the Canucks in scoring is linemate Brock Boeser with seven points (two goals, five assists).

"I'm obviously lucky to be playing with two really high-end players," Miller said. "We just try to keep it simple."

That's the key.

Vancouver paid a high price for Miller: goalie Marek Mazanec, a third-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft and a conditional first-round pick. The first-round pick will be in the 2020 NHL Draft if the Canucks make the Stanley Cup Playoffs this season or the 2021 NHL Draft if they don't.

But general manager Jim Benning liked that Miller had four seasons remaining on a five-year, $26.25 million contract signed with the Lightning on June 26, 2018, and thought he could help the development of Vancouver's young players. Coach Travis Green said the Canucks had been looking for someone to play with Pettersson and Boeser.

Video: Callahan breaks down Miller's play with Canucks

Pettersson, 20, the No. 5 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, won the Calder Trophy voted as the top rookie in the NHL last season with 66 points (28 goals, 38 assists). Boeser, the No. 23 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, was runner-up for the Calder in 2017-18, when he had 55 points (29 goals, 26 assists) in 62 games. The 22-year-old had 56 points (26 goals, 30 assists) in 69 games last season.

Miller, the No. 15 pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, has had as many as 58 points (23 goals, 35 assists) in a season, when the 26-year-old had 40 points (13 goals, 27 assists) in 63 games with the New York Rangers and 18 points (10 goals, eight assists) in 19 games with the Lightning in 2017-18.

His game is about skating, winning battles and getting the puck to his linemates. He also wins face-offs and plays net front on the power play. He has won 61.1 percent of his face-offs, sixth in the NHL among players who have taken at least 50, and has three power-play points (two goals, one assist).

"I want to be the guy that works and gets the puck back and opens up ice for those two that see the ice better than most guys in the League," Miller said. "I try to keep it simple. If I try to play really skilled like them, I get away from my game, start standing still. So I try to use my speed and size and stick with what works for me normally."

That has helped Boeser and Pettersson one way in particular.

"Me and [Pettersson] sometimes want to make plays when we should get it deep, and that's what we're kind of learning from him," Boeser said. "Sometimes, we don't need to force those plays and (should) just get the puck deep, because we'll get it back if we get on the forecheck.

"So that's something that he's really talked to us about, because if you don't turn the puck over, you're going to be in the offensive zone. We won't spend as much time in the [defensive] zone. 

"Even if we're not scoring, I think we're creating chances. I think we haven't spent that much time in the [defensive] zone probably the longest stretch in our careers so far. We've been barely in our [defensive] zone and getting pucks deep and going to work."

Video: DET@VAN: Miller snipes his second power-play goal

The Canucks have had 63.98 percent of the 5-on-5 shot attempts with Miller on the ice, 59.02 percent with Pettersson on the ice and 55.14 percent with Boeser on the ice, the best rates among those who have played more than one game.

Last season, they had 50.24 percent with Boeser on the ice and 50.14 percent with Pettersson on the ice.

"It's more fun to play in the offensive zone," Pettersson said. "When we play in the [defensive] zone, we focus a lot to play good there and move the puck out of the defensive zone and make plays there. … I feel we have good chemistry, and I feel like I know where they are on the ice."

Miller probably will not sustain a point-per-game pace. But his style is sustainable and can help push all three players to new heights.

"He has all the attributes of a great hockey player," Boeser said. "He's a veteran guy, so he kind of has taken us under his wing. He plays the right way."

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