It’s been almost exactly a decade since Vancouver Canucks forward J.T. Miller experienced the biggest win of his hockey career, a Gold Medal with Team USA in the 2013 World Junior Championships in Ufa, Russia.
He’s had some big moments in the NHL. He’ll recall the sizzling little Canucks playoff run “in the bubble” in 2020 when he had 18 points in 17 games as Vancouver went through the brief one-off qualifying round and then deep into the 2nd.
But it’s always a championship that stands out, and why wouldn’t it, the 10th anniversary of the win with teammates like John Gibson, Johnny Gaudreau, and Seth Jones passing just four days ago on January 5th.
The Americans beat Sweden’s best teenagers at the time, among them Rickard Rakell, Elias Lindholm, and Alexander Wennberg.
Miller reminded Vancouver Hockey Insider while reminiscing last season that little Rocco Grimaldi was the spare forward who scored the game winner in the Gold Medal Game. The current San Diego Gull (AHL) actually scored two of the American goals that day in a 3-1 victory. The Yank’s had beaten a Team Canada made up of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nathan MacKinnon and Mark Scheifele 5-1 two days earlier.
Miller will have a chance to reflect back on that and take a brief mental vacation as he spends Monday and Tuesday in his childhood realm. A native of East Palestine, Ohio, adjacent to the western border of Pennsylvania, Miller’s hockey existence centred around Pittsburgh, forty miles to the east. There, he developed while playing youth hockey and elite midgets with and against the likes of Gibson, before joining USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program.
Much has been made of his on and off-ice mood and his outbursts in recent times; frustration sometimes getting the best of him during a season that continues to head south. The Canucks haven’t really sniffed the playoffs the last three seasons including this one. Yes, plenty of hockey left, but let’s face it.
“It’s hard to play catch-up all the time,” Miller said after the Canucks 7-4 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday. “We didn’t play for sixty minutes. We’ve been talking about the same stuff all year, about stringing together good performances and it wasn’t that great tonight.”
Miller’s frustration sometimes manifests itself in mistakes and carelessness on ice, sometimes it appears out of fit of pique. He leads the Canucks forward group in giveaways with 26, ten of them in his own zone, by far the most. Angry and late line changes reflect similarly.
At the same time, it’s hard to not appreciate his competitive intensity and honesty, like after a 5-1 loss at home on November 30th.
“Starting with myself and all the way down we need to find a way to … in a game like today we can’t expect it to be an easy game,” he said. “This game is going to be hard, every game is going to be hard. Every team has a reason they’re coming in to win whether they’ve lost a bunch or they’re on a heater. It doesn’t matter, we can’t lose games because we got out-competed.”
Miller’s economic future is bright. He signed a seven-year, $56-million deal on September 2nd that kicks in next season and includes a no-move clause. He’s presently playing out the final season of a five-year deal and earning $5.25-million for 2022-’23.
Given the way things have gone for the club this year, one might wonder if the Canucks brass have buyer’s remorse. The “look” and the public relations wouldn’t be so spiffy if they decided to move this player while they can. Do they still love his game? His defensive numbers have slipped and following up a 99-point season in a contract year, he’s on pace for 74.
How will Miller react if Bo Horvat moves on and Elias Pettersson is named Canucks captain?
There’s a lot of those questions, relating to how the team will be constructed and how Miller fits in with the other personnel. Some of those questions will be answered sooner than later, at least by the March 3rd NHL trade deadline.
While they know they’re in town to play a desperate Pittsburgh Penguins team on Tuesday night, the Canucks are figuratively a team in the middle of nowhere. At least for a moment, J.T. Miller gets to catch his breath back home.
((Simmer, the author of this story, was the live ice level reporter for TSN and the NHL Network covering Miller and Team USA in Ufa at the 2013 WJC))