One year ago today, Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning made one of his most controversial trades in recent memory, dealing a conditional first-round pick, a third-round pick, and goaltender Marek Mazanec to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for J.T. Miller.
To say the move was divisive among Canucks fans would be an understatement. While Miller had been a solid contributor for the Lightning and the New York Rangers by both underlying metrics and traditional boxcar stats, there was some debate about whether or not a team that had just missed the playoffs for the fourth year in a row was in a position to deal a first-round pick.
The concern about the price the Canucks paid prompted a number of hot takes, including a tweet from myself that was featured on After Hours, following Hockey Night in Canada. I’m going to include it here, if only to stop people from tweeting grainy photos of their TV at me.
It’s been 24 hours and I’m still laughing at how bad the JT Miller trade is
— acab markstrom (@failsonmcdonald) June 23, 2019
I also wrote a piece over at CanucksArmy detailing the issues I had with the trade, where I offered a more nuanced look at what it meant for the Canucks.
It goes without saying that I was not a fan of the deal at the time, but the landscape has shifted considerably since then, so I thought I would take a look back and reassess the trade on the day of its one-year anniversary.
While the Canucks’ decision to pull the trigger on Miller was controversial, his quality as a player was never up for debate.
Miller produced at a credible second-line pace during his time with the Lightning, and had also been one of the team’s best forwards by shot and expected-goal share. His profile also made him a unique fit for the Canucks, so much so that Vancouver’s resident Boy Wonder Harman Dayal had singled him out as a potential trade target for the Canucks in the week leading up to the 2019 draft:
There’s a lot to like with the 26-year-old who offers versatility in being able to play all three forward positions, 50+ point scoring ability, a solid two-way profile and good physical attributes with plus speed and a 6-foot-1, 218-pound frame. Stylistically, Miller would also be a great fit on the Canucks. For one, he brings a ton of transition value as far as being able to help move the puck from zone to zone with possession — an area the Canucks struggled mightily with last year.
Moreover, on a team having an imbalance as far as having more shoot-first players and lacking bonafide playmakers, Miller’s setup ability would add a new dimension to the Canucks’ top six.
Miller was also locked in for another four years at $5.25 million per season, making him a bargain in comparison to potential top-six forwards available on the open market. On the surface, he seemed like the perfect fit. The only problem was the price tag.
While fans and the media generally agreed that Miller was a worthwhile trade target, the reception to the price they paid for him was much more mixed. The Lightning were facing a cap crunch and needed to offload salary, and giving up a first round pick seemed quite steep under the circumstances.
The Canucks were also in the midst of a four-year playoff drought without a clear path towards contention, making the value of their first-rounder higher than many of the Lightning’s hypothetical trade partners. The conditions on the pick bought the Canucks some time, but they were still taking a substantial risk by dealing a first-rounder long before they had even the slightest idea where it might land.
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At the time of the trade, the general consensus among critics was that the Canucks had overpaid for Miller’s services, but that was based on a number of assumptions that turned out to be false. The first was that Miller would be more or less the same player here that he’d been in Tampa and New York. The second was that Miller was likely to slot in beside Bo Horvat on the team’s second line.
Instead, Miller carved out a role as Elias Pettersson’s most common linemate and took a huge step forward this season, leading the team in goals (27) and points (72), in 69 games before the season was cut short. It was an unexpected development for a player who was 26 at the time the Canucks acquired him, and one that has significantly shifted how the trade is perceived.
There’s a big difference between giving up a first and a third for a 45-55 point second-line winger and paying the same price for a bonafide first-line player capable of leading his team in scoring.
While the trade certainly looks good for the Canucks at the moment, it’s important to remember that we still don’t really have any idea where the pick the Canucks gave up is going to be. The value of a first round pick isn’t fixed, so where that selection ends up falling in the 2020 or 2021 draft is going to go a long way towards determining how the trade looks a few years from now.
The worst case scenario for the Canucks is that they lose the play-in round against Minnesota, miss the playoffs next year, and end up giving New Jersey a top-10 pick. The best case scenario would obviously be that they are able to take advantage of the unique circumstances the pandemic has created and are able to go on a deep run. While many fans are likely to find the prospect of cancelling the season unpalatable, it could also benefit the Canucks if the parties involved elect to alter the conditions on the pick. The sooner the Canucks are able to lock in that cost certainty, the better it will be for them in the long run.
It’s also worth contemplating where the Canucks are going to be over the next three years of Miller’s deal. With a plethora of young talent to sign, an aging defence, and a dearth of prospects to take their place, the path towards contention remains unclear. While Miller has undoubtedly been better than any of us expected, fans may feel less enthusiastic if the team ends up giving up a high pick and he skips town in three years without the team seeing any significant playoff success over the course of his best years.
One thing is certain: the trade is looking much better for the Canucks than it did a year ago. It will just take a little more time to determine whether or not it will truly move the needle for them in the long run.