With the Tampa Bay Lightning facing a considerable cap crunch and with a few major items on their off-season to-do list, it was only a matter of time before someone, anyone, was made a cap casualty. And during Saturday’s second round at the NHL draft, the axe fell on J.T. Miller.
In a four-piece deal, the Lightning shipped the full weight of Miller’s contract to the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for goaltender Marek Mazanec, a third-round pick in Saturday’s draft and a conditional first-round draft choice. If Vancouver makes the playoffs next season, Tampa Bay will receive the Canucks’ 2020 first-round selection. If Vancouver misses the post-season, however, the first rounder shifts back to the 2021 draft. That’s the Canucks betting they’ll be a playoff team in two seasons’ time.
Given the trade was a necessary cap dump for the Lightning, the work Tampa Bay GM Julien BriseBois did in getting two quality draft choices should be commended, as should the fact that he cleared up at least one part of the depth goaltending issue, which was one concern that was facing his roster given the shipping out of prospect Connor Ingram to the Nashville Predators last weekend. Mazanec, an unrestricted free agent, seems an ideal candidate to be re-signed and fill in as a third-stringer on the roster. The 27-year-old has 31 NHL contests under his belt, but he’ll serve primarily as an AHL keeper and injury replacement should one of Andrei Vasilevskiy or Louis Domingue land on the shelf.
The real value for Tampa Bay here, though, is the additional cap space. By having Vancouver assume the entirety of Miller’s $5.25-million cap hit, which is on the books for the next four seasons, the Lightning free up a significant amount of spending space. That’s cap space that can be used to lock up restricted free agent Brayden Point, which is No. 1 with a bullet on BriseBois’ summer checklist. The 23-year-old is coming off of a true breakout campaign in which he scored 41 goals and 92 points, all the while further asserting himself as the type of two-way pivot who can carry a top line. After Nikita Kucherov, it could be argued that Point was the Bolts’ most important player last season, and speculation is that his contract extension could carry a cap hit in the $9-million range.
And while the cost of acquisition was high – partings ways with a first-round pick, particularly if it ends up as a top-10 selection in 2021, is significant – the Canucks were in need of another top-six forward who could take some of the offensive onus off of Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser and Calder Trophy winner and sophomore-to-be Elias Pettersson. That trio combined for 81 of Vancouver’s 219 goals last season, or nearly 37 percent of the total offense. Adding Miller to the mix not only provides the Canucks with the potential for a stronger attack, but it makes it so that the offense can be spread out.
That said, Miller took a step backwards offensively in 2018-19, managing only 13 goals and 47 points after a 2017-18 campaign in which he set career highs across the board with 23 goals and 35 assists for 58 points. Miller’s downturn in production was paired with a reduced role on a deep and lethal Lightning attack, however. He yo-yoed throughout the lineup, eventually settling into a third-line role, where he skated alongside Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn. In Vancouver, Miller is all but certain to be a top-six fixture, though, which was a necessity given the flop that has been the Loui Eriksson signing. The Canucks intend to rid themselves of Eriksson and his contract this summer.
There’s no reason to believe that Miller can’t round back into form in Vancouver, either. Despite last season’s offensive dip, he was a consistent 20-goal, 45-point scorer in the three seasons prior. In fact, even accounting for last season’s scoring slide, Miller has scored at an average of 20 goals and 52 points per season over the past four campaigns. The 26-year-old is right in the prime of his career, too, so there may be no time like the present for him to have himself a career year.
So, a slight overpayment? Maybe, but it’s a deal that saw both teams get exactly what they wanted. The Canucks add to an offense that was far too centered on three players, one of whom was a baby-faced rookie last season, while the Lightning got sweet, sweet cap relief, though it likely won’t be long before they’re right up against the spending limit once again.
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