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Rutherford: Re-signing J.T. Miller is the goal

“Everybody thought he was going to be traded at the trade deadline and he wasn’t.”
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J.T. Miller has one more year left on his contract with the Vancouver Canucks, but will he still be with the team next season? photo: Dan Toulgoet / Glacier Media

It’s not just Brock Boeser and the Vancouver Canucks’ pending free agents that need new contracts. Two of the Canucks’ most important players have just one more year on their contracts: Bo Horvat and J.T. Miller.

Figuring out whether one or both of them will be part of the team’s core group past next season is one of the key questions for the Canucks’ long-term success. Both Horvat and Miller will be eligible to sign contract extensions starting July 13.

If the Canucks can’t re-sign both players, that’s where discussions have to turn towards trades. Yes, the Canucks could certainly return with both players on expiring deals next season and likely be a better team than if they had traded them, but president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford isn’t looking to build a team that is good for one season but one that can compete for the Stanley Cup year after year.

Rutherford addressed the issue of Miller and Horvat in an interview with Don Taylor and Rick Dhaliwal on Chek TV on Friday and it was intriguing to see the difference between how he spoke about both players.

“Yes, that’s the goal,” said Rutherford when asked about getting a deal done with Miller. “We’ll see where that goes and then decisions will be made at that time. Everybody thought he was going to be traded at the trade deadline and he wasn’t and he continued on. He had a great year for the Canucks, a career year for himself, and he’s got a lot of good hockey left in him.

“We’re gonna go through the process here, see where the contracts go, and then make a decision.”

It’s certainly understandable that re-signing Miller would be the goal — he just put up 99 points to lead the Canucks in scoring — but it’s clear that getting a deal done won’t be easy. Rutherford admitted that the Canucks are “in a tough situation cap-wise” and Miller will be able to demand a significant raise from the paltry $5.25 million per year he made on his last contract.

Compare that to how Rutherford spoke about Horvat when asked about getting a new deal done with the Canucks captain.

“I really like Bo, I’ve always liked him back to his Junior hockey days,” he said. “He’s got a lot of good hockey left in him. He’s a character guy, he’s a center iceman that’s hard to find, and we believe that he should be part of our team going forward.”

Rutherford seemed a lot more certain about Horvat getting re-signed than Miller, which makes sense. According to Evolving Hockey’s contract projections, Miller’s next contract could top $10 million on a 7-year deal, while Horvat is more likely to come in around $7 million per year for 8 years. One of those contracts would be significantly easier to fit under the salary cap than the other.

That’s before considering that Horvat is two years younger than Miller. In terms of the long-term future of the Canucks, it’s a lot easier to commit to Horvat.

That said, Rutherford did say that re-signing Miller was the goal. If he and general manager Patrik Allvin can sort out the Canucks’ cap issues — “We’re trying to gradually untangle that” — there’s a possibility that both Horvat and Miller get re-signed. That would take some major moves, akin to Alexander the Great cutting the Gordian knot in half with a sword.

Miller came up again when Rutherford was asked about trying to add draft picks in trades. The Canucks currently lack a second-round pick in the upcoming draft, as it was part of the trade for Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Conor Garland.

“If you get [a pick], you’re giving away a good player on your team and we need to add to our team,” said Rutherford. “But we also need to look at do we move a player or two out to get more cap space, so there’s a lot of moving parts. Everything’s on the table.

“I think it’ll be hard to add a draft pick. I’ll say the obvious — if we want to move somebody like J.T. Miller, we’ll add a draft pick, but we’ll also lose a really good player.”

The key, says Rutherford, is patience. The Canucks can’t rush into making a move for the sake of making a move.

“We have to be a little bit cautious,” said Rutherford. “Everybody understands the situation the Canucks are in but we all get impatient. If we get too impatient, we’re gonna move too fast and we’ll take a step backwards instead of a step forward. We’ll just take this step by step and try to improve with each step that we make.”