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Canucks: How hard lessons have J.T. Miller primed for playoff success


Miller’s career evolution from early growing pains to 103-point dynamo, is a testament to relenting will matching obvious skill.

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J.T. Miller gets it.

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He gets the tough love, the tough talk, and the tough times.

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He gets the anticipation of the NHL post-season and has endured incredible angst.

For the Vancouver Canucks centre to get to this place of peace with his game, his career, and what could be another chase for the elusive Stanley Cup, it has taken a meeting of the minds.

His evolution from early growing pains in New York City, an expendable third-liner in Tampa Bay, to a 103-point dynamo this season, who’s dialed into everything Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet is selling, is a testament to relenting will matching obvious skill.

Not that it was easy. It has taken time.

The Canucks were in Philadelphia in late November of 2019 when Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault asked this reporter to send his former petulant pupil with the Rangers a message.

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They had crossed career paths and often got cross at each other, but the professor was pleased at the progress.

“Tell J.T. he gets it,” Vigneault said with a knowing nod and slight grin.

Five years later, Miller easily recalled what his former bench boss was getting at.

“I wouldn’t be here today if not for him,” Miller said Saturday as the Canucks prepared to host the Nashville Predators on Sunday to open their playoff series. “It’s about accountability. You don’t have to like the guy.”

brock boeser and jt miller
Brock Boeser #6 is congratulated by J.T. Miller #9 of the Vancouver Canucks after scoring a goal during the first period of their NHL game against the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Arena on Oct. 11, 2023 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Photo by Derek Cain /Getty Images

Vigneault constantly challenged Miller to advance the maturity curve, to understand that everything mattered whether a small detail or big picture.

“We butted heads a lot,” said Miller. “He wanted me to get it earlier than later. You’re kind of young and stubborn and don’t want to hear it, but when you look back, you appreciate it.”

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Miller was a brash 21-year-old in 2015 when the Rangers lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final at Madison Square Garden. Three years later, his Lightning dropped Game 7 of the conference final on home ice.

Now at age 31, Miller has the experience and eagerness to lead the Canucks.

“Obviously, anticipation for the group and trying not to get too worked up,” he added Saturday. “If you haven’t been through it (playoffs) it’s hard to execute because unexpected things happen. Guys who have been there have to help lead the way.

“You have to take it in and you have to enjoy it”.

It’s easier said than done.

Testosterone levels will soar Sunday and controlling emotions is as vital as controlling the puck. Miller has had those moments, but Canucks captain Quinn Hughes knows what his presence brings.

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“He’s a massive catalyst,” said Hughes. “A big part of the leadership group and a big personality. He obviously drove our team. He expects a lot from himself.

“He probably took the losing (in the past) personally and he deserves this.”

The Predators went on a 14-0-2 run that started after a humiliating 9-2 loss to the Dallas Stars on Feb. 15 on home ice.

Now, they’re eager to avenge losing all three regular-season meetings to the Canucks. They’ll rely on a formidable first line of Stanley Cup champion Ryan O’Reilly between 48-goal winger Filip Forsberg and Gustav Nyquist. They combined for 97 goals and 238 points this season.

O’Reilly was also a beast in the faceoff circle at 53.9 per cent efficiency and won the fifth-most draws. Miller was two behind and went 56.3 in faceoffs.

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“Starting with the puck is so important,” stressed Miller. “He (O’Reilly) is very strong and doesn’t really waver. He can lose the first six and not be rattled by that.

“He finds a way to be 50 (per cent) or better every night. I’ve taken a lot of what I like to do in the (faceoff) dot from his book.

“I respect him. I would love that (matchup) opportunity.”

When Tocchet took over the bench, he told Miller how much the centre reminded the head coach of how he played. Miller took it as an honour and the results speak for themselves.

“He drives a lot the play and is an emotional guy,” said Tocchet. “He’s done a good job of keeping that in check and now it’s the playoffs and it’s the same thing.

“We have to make sure we don’t get frustrated and those are the next steps for us.”

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Miller will still drop an F-bomb and slam his stick, but like his teammates, he can’t take a bad penalty or have a low-percentage, cross-ice pass picked off to trigger an odd-man rush.

“He has been terrific for us all year, added Tocchet. “Even when he has his ‘B’ or ‘C’ game, he somehow contributes. That’s when you know you have a good player. His temperament will help players who maybe are a bit antsy because they haven’t been in the playoffs.”

And that’s where the past can help the present. Those tough Game 7 setbacks are hard to forget.

“It has helped me be more prepared,” summed up Miller. “You learn from it. That’s the stuff you bank and put in your DNA and your character as a player.

bkuzma@postmedia.com

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