J.T. Miller didn’t always feel like he was the kind of NHL player who could sign long-term contracts worth more than US$50 million.
Last week, though, the 29-year-old centre joined an elite group, inking a seven-year, $56-million deal that will see him play for the Vancouver Canucks through 2029-30.
“It’s something I didn’t really think I was capable of earning,” Miller told reporters on a video call Tuesday. “I take a lot of pride in that. I don’t come from a whole lot, my family. It means a lot to us. It’s very emotional.
“I feel very lucky and fortunate, but I put in a lot of hard work to get where I’m at.”
Drafted 15th overall by the New York Rangers in 2011, the feisty forward has split 11 seasons between the New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Canucks, amassing 454 points (169 goals, 285 assists) across 637 regular-season games.
Tampa Bay dealt the six-foot-one, 218-pound native of East Palestine, Ohio, to the Canucks at the 2019 draft and he’s been a standout during his three seasons in Vancouver.
He led the team in scoring with 99 points (32 goals, 67 assists) last year.
“Over a period of time here, I think he has matured, he has found his game,” said Patrik Allvin, Vancouver’s general manager. “He’s super competitive. I think he can dictate the outcome of every single game that we played last year, just based on his performance.”
After a dismal start to the season, the Canucks missed the playoffs by five points — a result that Miller said left the team with a lot of confidence.
The prospect of winning with “a special group” was part of what enticed Miller to sign an extension with Vancouver.
“We like each other. It’s just a fun group,” he said.
When head coach Bruce Boudreau was hired in December, the Canucks went on a win streak, going 8-0-1. The stretch was a lot of fun, Miller said.
“I think we want to do more,” he said. “Winning in the regular season is great, but that’s not why we play. We want to get back to the playoffs and we want to play when it counts. … And that’s what’s so exciting about it — the best is yet to come.”
With Miller set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2022-23 season, speculation about his future in Vancouver has been a hot topic for months. Getting a deal done before training camp begins later this month was important for both sides, he said.
“I think it might free me up to play even a more consistent level of hockey, to know there’s a commitment there,” he said.
“So I’m really excited to be spending this chapter of my life and my hockey career in Vancouver. And to get it out of the way before camp so I can focus and be clear minded and have a clear head, it’s exciting.”
The new contract wasn’t the only major event in Miller’s life last week. His wife, Natalie, gave birth to their son, Owen, on Thursday. The couple now have three children.
“Pretty exciting week overall,” Miller said. “I feel really lucky. And just glad the family’s happy. That’s really all you can ask for.”
Talks with Miller took time, Allvin said, with the Canucks carefully examining every aspect of a potential deal.
“We took our time and looked at the roster. Cap situation moving forward, obviously, is important. And then we looked at the options, what’s out there, in terms of players being available potentially next summer,” he said.
“And as I’ve said all along here, J.T. was our best player last year. He’s a super competitive player. And we were really happy to get the contract extension here done.”
Attention has now turned to when — or if — the Canucks will get a new contract signed with Bo Horvat.
The 27-year-old centre had 52 points last season, including a career-high 31 goals, and is set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2022-23 campaign.
“Bo is our captain. We respect and we like Bo,” Allvin said. “And we’re communicating with his camp and we’ll see if there’s a deal to be made there.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 6, 2022.
—Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press