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J.T. Miller has forged a hard-nosed identity for the Canucks’ top line

The physical forward has exceeded all expectations in his first season with the Canucks
J.T. Miller
J.T. Miller has exceeded all expectations in his first season with the Canucks. File photo Dan Toulgoet

Leading an NHL team in hits isn’t always a good thing. In order to hit a player in hockey, the other player usually has to have possession of the puck. Therefore, if you’re throwing the most hits on your team that means the other team has possession of the puck a lot when you’re on the ice, and you’re probably not playing very well.

That’s why a pair of statistics for J.T. Miller is particularly impressive. Miller leads the Canucks in hits, but he also leads the Canucks in corsi percentage, a statistic that acts as a proxy for puck possession.

In other words, Miller isn’t leading the Canucks in hits because he and his linemates never have the puck. In fact, his line with Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser is one of the best puck possession lines in the NHL and his proclivity for throwing hits plays a big role.

“We talk about that all the time,” Miller said earlier in the year. “We don't want to play like a skilled line. I think when we play well and break other teams down, then the skill takes over and things start to open up. When we're skating and creating turnovers, it's a contagious thing, that's our team's identity.”

Miller plays a physical, hard-nosed game, but combines that grittiness with some high-end skill and an exceptional hockey IQ. When he throws a hit, it’s for a purpose: to create a turnover and get the puck moving towards the opponent’s net.

“That’s always been a part of his game,” said Canucks GM Jim Benning. “He’s always been a physical player: dumping the puck in and getting in on the forecheck and recovering it to make plays. I think our other players are doing a better job now doing that from watching him.”

You can see Miller’s physical game rubbing off on his linemates.

A lot of the talk surrounding Pettersson when he entered the league centred on his size, and he’s still one of the lightest players on the team. That size belies a surprising physical edge, however, and he’s shown an ability to knock opponents off their skates to win the puck or protect it with a well-timed reverse hit.

Boeser, meanwhile, has quietly become one of the Canucks’ best puck hounds along the boards, winning puck battles down low. It’s a still-developing side of the sniper’s game, but it’s made him a more well-rounded, effective player.

“The one thing that [Miller]’s exceeded my expectations in is the leadership that he's brought in the room with our younger players,” said Benning. “He’s mentored some of them and helped them along their path.”

That extends to another occasional linemate of Miller and Pettersson: Jake Virtanen.

“He’s been good for Jake too,” said Benning. “Jake is a big strong guy that’s understanding, in  watching J.T., how he uses his body to protect the puck and get it to the net. He has the size and strength to play that power game and I think we’ve seen more from him doing that this year.”

It’s not just that Miller is playing with a physical edge, of course; he’s producing points. Miller is neck-and-neck with Pettersson for the scoring lead on the Canucks and, with plenty of games remaining, is already threatening his career highs for goals and points. Benning, who made a big gamble in trading a first-round pick to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Miller, is gratified, but not surprised.

“For J.T., it’s been about opportunity,” he said. “On that Tampa Bay team last year that maybe had the most skilled forward group in the league, he at times played on the third or fourth line. So he’s getting different looks this year, different opportunities. He’s always on the power play, playing on the first line for our team.

“He’s young enough, but he’s got experience, so he’s ready to take that next step, but he hasn’t had that opportunity like he’s getting with us this year.”

Big Numbers

  • 22 and 33  Two of the biggest numbers in Canucks history will be raised to the rafters of Rogers Arena next week. On Feb. 12 against the Chicago Blackhawks, the Canucks will retire the numbers of Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
  • 88  Heading into Tuesday’s game against the Boston Bruins, J.T. Miller had 88 hits, followed by Alex Edler with 80 and Jake Virtanen with 79.

Stick-taps and Glove-drops

  • An additional tap of the stick to J.T. Miller for being named the NHL Players’ Association Player of the Week on Monday. The previous week, he had three goals and seven points in four games, with three-straight multi-point games.
  • I’m dropping the gloves with the other Canadian teams. As of Tuesday, the Canucks were sixth in the NHL; the next best Canadian team — the Toronto Maple Leafs — was 13th.