As the Washington Capitals approach the 2022 NHL Draft and the start of free agency, the team has a hefty to-do list that includes finding a new top-6 center.
Backstrom made the tough decision to undergo hip resurfacing surgery to treat a lingering injury and now faces a “lengthy” recovery process. However, the surgery doesn’t have the best reputation, as it ended Ryan Kesler’s career and is difficult to come back from. His timetable — or return to Washington — remains uncertain, and in turn, the team needs a replacement that goes beyond just a second-line center.
Filling Backstrom’s void goes far beyond finding a secondary scorer. The Capitals will need a new catalyst on the already struggling and inconsistent power play who can make plays and work the half wall, and at the other end of the ice, kill penalties. Backstrom is also an outspoken leader and role model with years of experience.
One player whose name has come up as a potential understudy for No. 19: Vancouver Canucks center J.T. Miller. Per Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, the Capitals are one team that has been linked to Miller, who has been on the trade block for quite a bit — though the Canucks aren’t rushing anything. Jeff Marek also said on “32 Thoughts” that Washington is one of the teams interested in trading for him.
Looking at Miller, the 29-year-old checks several boxes. He has great hands and a good shot, and he’s a proven playmaker who has flourished over the last few seasons. The 2011 first-rounder is coming off a career year that saw him dish 32 goals and 67 assists for 99 points in 80 games. He also won 54.1 percent of his faceoffs this season and plays several different roles. Also, 38 of his points came on the man advantage.
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With regard to ice time, Miller can log heavy minutes. He led all forwards with 21:04 ATOI this past season. The Ohio native also ranked first among Vancouver skaters in power-play ice time (3:19/G) and shorthanded ice time (2:05/G).
Miller takes good care of the puck and is a physical player with size and strength. The 6-1, 218-pound pivot racked 172 hits this past season and didn’t shy away from puck battles or laying the body. His 52.36 Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 ranked sixth on the team, and his 51.79 expected-goals for percentage and 51.03 scoring-chances for percentage ranked fourth among all forwards with at least 18 games played.
While Miller didn’t have the best tenure with the Tampa Bay Lightning, he was being utilized in a bottom-6 role and not getting much ice time. Over the last few years with the Canucks, he has shown that he can be a point-per-game player. In the COVID-shortened 2019-20 campaign, he had 72 points in 69 games, and in 2020-21, he managed 46 points in 53 games before getting back up to a point-per-game pace with a standout season this year.
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When used on the top-6, Miller is a proven contributor with a knack for the net who can make great plays and use his hockey IQ and speed to his advantage. He can also win face-offs at key times, which is another area that Washington needs help in. He is also a vocal leader. With Miller, the Capitals could fill some of Backstrom’s void by getting a player who can play the roles he did.
Looking at the risk involved, Miller does come with a price. He turns 30 in March, and for a team that wants to get younger, he would be another veteran presence that comes with a price. After all, Vancouver isn’t going to just give away a near 100-point scorer for nothing.
The return would likely involve some big pieces, and the Capitals have a lot of them: top prospects, the No. 20 pick and maybe even roster players. It’s unclear what the asking price is, but it wouldn’t come cheap.
Miller carries a hefty cap hit of $5.25 million in 2022-23 before becoming a UFA. However, with the long-term injured reserve and some free agents likely to walk, the team does have space to work with, and that’s not the worst price to pay, especially with free agents like Nazem Kadri expected to cost upward of $7 million. And, if Miller doesn’t fit, Washington doesn’t need to extend him.
Overall, the Capitals need to roll the dice on someone some time. The team is in “win now” mode with the Stanley Cup window closing and the core aging. And, considering the market, Miller’s a decent option.