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Gaudreau and Flames a cautionary tale for Canucks and J.T. Miller

The Canucks cannot afford to lose J.T. Miller for nothing the same way the Flames lost Gaudreau.
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The Vancouver Canucks can't let the J.T. Miller situation drag on into the start of next season.

The Calgary Flames are in a bind. 

The Flames have already lost Johnny Gaudreau in free agency, surprisingly signing with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Now, it seems likely they’re going to lose Matthew Tkachuk as well, as he has reportedly informed the Flames that he won’t be re-signing and is likely to be traded in the near future. 

That’s two members of the Flames’ first line leaving in just one offseason, which isn’t exactly ideal for a team that just finished first in the Pacific Division and was looking to become long-term Stanley Cup contenders.

Before fans of the Vancouver Canucks get too wrapped up in their schadenfreude, they need to know that they could be in a similar boat next offseason.

"He's too important an asset to let walk into free agency."

Like the Flames, the Canucks have two of their top players with contracts expiring at the same time: J.T. Miller and Bo Horvat. The two situations are not exactly the same — Tkachuk is notably a restricted free agent rather than an unrestricted free agent — but the Flames’ offseason does show what could go wrong for the Canucks.

It starts with Gaudreau going into last season without a contract extension. 

That’s something that had been on the radar for a while as a cause for concern for Calgary. Sportsnet’s Eric Francis even argued, “the most prudent approach is either to re-sign him or trade him,” months before the 2021 offseason.

“He’s too important an asset to let walk into free agency or play into his final year, when the trade market shrinks,” said Francis. 

That’s exactly what happened. With the Flames at the top of the Pacific, they were never going to trade Gaudreau during the season. As a result, Gaudreau went to free agency and walked, reportedly taking less money to play in Columbus than he was offered by Calgary.

While the Flames lost Gaudreau for nothing in terms of assets, they did get one last fantastic season out of their franchise forward, as he led the Flames in scoring with 115 points and was named a First-Team All-Star. It still didn’t lead to playoff success — the Flames lost in the second round to the Edmonton Oilers — but it was still an exciting season for Flames fans.

J.T. Miller's situation parallels that of Johnny Gaudreau

It’s easy to draw parallels between Gaudreau and Miller, as well as, to a lesser extent, Horvat. Like Gaudreau, Miller is an American playing in a Canadian market. Like Gaudreau, Miller is due a significant raise on a long-term contract. Miller is a little bit older than Gaudreau with a bit less of a track record, but Gaudreau’s career high in points heading into last season was the same as Miller’s — 99 points. 

The real similarity, of course, is their respective situations. If Miller enters the final year of his contract with the Canucks without an extension, it is entirely likely that his situation resolves the same way — with him leaving in free agency and the Canucks getting nothing for him.

At least with Tkachuk, the Flames have the option of trading him rather than losing him for nothing, because he’s a restricted free agent. Teams should be lining up to acquire a 24-year-old 42-goal-scoring Second-Team All-Star and it will be interesting to see what kind of return the Flames get if and when he is traded.

Tkachuk’s situation is perhaps a little more comparable to that of Elias Pettersson, whose contract expires in 2025. The Canucks will need to ensure that they’re still an attractive place to play by then with a promise of true Stanley Cup contention ahead of them to make sure that Pettersson doesn’t entertain thoughts of a Tkachuk-like trade demand.

For now, the main concern is Miller. Getting Horvat re-signed seems like less of a challenge, though they should also be aiming to get him extended before the start of next season to avoid the risk of him walking in free agency.

Miller needs to be either traded or extended this offseason to avoid the possibility of him leaving for nothing like Gaudreau.

"We're really excited to have J.T. here for another year."

The arguments for trading Miller are varied. There are concerns about how he could decline after the age of 30 if the Canucks re-signed him to a long-term deal, as well as concerns about the potential cap hit of such a contract. Alongside those concerns, there is optimism that a Miller trade could bring back exactly what the Canucks need — a young, right-handed defenceman, along with prospects and picks to refill a depleted prospect pool.  

The trade offers thus far, however, haven’t matched up to that value and the addition of another first-line forward like Tkachuk to the trade market probably doesn’t help.

The Canucks want to keep Miller, which isn’t surprising. Who wouldn’t want to keep a 99-point centre who plays in all situations?

“He was our best player last year,” said Canucks GM Patrik Allvin on the first day of free agency. “We're really excited to have J.T. here for another year. I believe he's excited and ready to come back. And who knows, anything can happen here over the next couple of weeks/months, but we're happy to have him back.”

But bringing back Miller without an extension could prove disastrous. Thus far, the Canucks and Miller haven't made much progress in negotiations.

"There's a realistic path for an extension with the Canucks."

Miller’s agent, Brian Bartlett, told The Athletic that he still thinks an extension is possible.

“I do think there’s a realistic path for an extension with the Canucks,” said Bartlett. “J.T. loves it in Vancouver. He feels like the team is improving, he loved his role there, his family likes the city. He would be on board with an extension.”

The two sides might not see eye-to-eye about a contract, however.
 
“The part that we can’t answer is at what value or level the team places on him,” said Barlett. “From our end, from J.T’s end, there’s a path forward on an extension but it takes two to tango, I guess.”

It’s debatable whether the Canucks should extend Miller but if the Canucks can’t sign him to an extension, they have to trade him. Allowing him to leave in free agency would be a massive missed opportunity to set the Canucks up for future success.

At least the Flames were able to be legitimate Stanley Cup contenders in their final year with both Gaudreau and Tkachuk. The Canucks are more likely to be a bubble playoff team at this point even with Miller, particularly if they’re unable to upgrade their defence.