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BriseBois's Shrewd J.T. Miller Trade

June 23, 2019, 2:40 PM ET [34 Comments]
Sam Hitchcock
Tampa Bay Lightning Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Julien BriseBois is off to a strong start. With Brayden Point needing a new contract this summer, and Andrei Vasilevskiy, Anthony Cirelli, Erik Cernak, Mikhail Sergachev, and Mathieu Joseph all up for new contracts next summer, the new GM of the Lightning needed to shed salary. Recognizing the expendability of J.T. Miller, BriseBois dumped the former first-round pick and his $5.25M cap hit onto Vancouver, and managed to obtain a 2020 conditional 1st round pick, 2019 3rd round pick, and backup goaltender Marek Mazanec.

The Miller trade is a dramatic victory for the Lightning on several levels. Presumably, the Lightning front office envisioned Miller as a talented forward who had simply been hamstrung by the Rangers’ milieu. Miller’s potential would be realized once he was placed alongside the Lightning’s cadre of talented playmakers. Moreover, Miller would bring the ability to add a little muscle to a team that lacked physicality, and would finish around the net. On a team characterized by finesse, he could be the power forward slashing and banging through the slot. His capabilities would be buoyed by Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, or both. When Miller was dealt to Tampa Bay at the trade deadline during the 2017-18 season, he accrued 10 goals and eight assists in 19 games. The Lightning disregarded his lackluster playoff performance that season of two goals and six assists in 17 games and chose to believe they had acquired a point per game player.

Reality proved to be very different. It turns out coach Jon Cooper would have a short leash for Miller. In the first game of the 2018-19 season Miller played alongside Kucherov and Stamkos. It was a disaster. At 5v5, the Panthers collected 6 Scoring Chances and only allowed three against the trio. Their line was dominated in possession metrics. By game two against Vancouver, Miller was playing with Adam Erne and Cedric Paquette on the fourth line. Miller would get used to playing with the players on the fringe of being healthy scratches, as he played 20 games of the season with Ryan Callahan and Paquette.

Miller would see the most ice time with Alex Killorn and Anthony Cirelli on the third line. But it became more and more apparent that the possession dominance of that line was driven by Cirelli and Killorn, and that Miller was a supplementary piece. When Killorn and Cirelli played with Mathieu Joseph, they had a Corsi Plus-Minus of +72, which is slightly below what they had with Miller but is a relatively small drop. Miller would have less success controlling possession when he was away from Cirelli and Killorn than those two would have without Miller, but partly that was because Miller was relegated to the fourth line when he wasn’t with those two.

Whether or not Cooper’s snap judgment that Miller was a bottom-six forward stunted his production, Miller never did enough to convince Cooper that he belonged in the top six. He could have a moment of genius and then disappear from the game. Miller is an inconsistent player on a shift-by-shift, night-to-night basis and on too many nights he ranked as the eighth- or ninth-best forward. And the most consistent strain in Miller’s game is in the postseason, where he is notoriously ineffective. In 61 playoff games, he has three goals and 23 assists.

Miller’s impact on scoring was disappointing, but not without surprises. He finished with the fewest goals since his rookie season in 2014-15. He finished 11th among forwards in Individual Point Percentage at 5v5. Mathieu Joseph played five less games than Miller and had only three less individual Scoring Chances at 5v5. In High-Danger Scoring Chances, the only forwards who Miller finished higher than were Callahan and Erne.

But at the same time, with 47 points, Miller was one shy of tying for fourth in scoring among Lightning forwards. And that was with playing five fewer games than Yanni Gourde. How Miller got on the score sheet was perhaps the most surprising part of the Miller experience in Tampa Bay. He succeeded more as a distributor than a shooter. He registered 34 assists, and tallied 16 on the man advantage. From the goal line on the power play, he showed he could thread the needle to the Lightning’s shooters. This coming from someone who in 2015-16 scored more goals than assists.

By giving Miller an extension last summer, the Lightning completely ignored how much they had invested in a handful of players in the short- and long-term. Admittedly, the Lightning were not yet aware that Point would be worthy of $8M a year, but for Stamkos, Kucherov, Victor Hedman, and Vasilevskiy when he gets paid in 2020, they will be paying $7.875M or more a year—each. That is over 40 percent of the salary cap even as the cap incrementally rises. If you count Ryan McDonagh, half of their salary cap is tied up in five players. There is a good chance that after the Lightning re-sign their Vezina-winning goaltender they will be paying a half dozen players (Stamkos, Kucherov, Point, Vasilevskiy, Hedman, and McDonagh) over 55% of their salary cap. Needless to say, how they spend that other 45 percent is extremely important, especially if you are already replete with overpaid role players (Killorn, Palat, and Gourde).

The Lightning are masters of identifying players in the draft, developing them, and turning them into skilled contributors. This is why shedding Miller and his contract and obtaining the draft picks are so exciting. They are shedding a dispensable player who they did not utilize well, and are collecting opportunities to procure more players who can add value on entry-level deals. And that is one tool to help mitigate their rising costs as the Lightning try to retain all, or most, of the following: Vasilevskiy, Cirelli, Cernak, Sergachev, and Joseph.

The Lightning were in salary cap hell. Now it’s like they’re stuck at the gate for a United flight that keeps getting delayed. So, its bad, but not quite hell. When BriseBois took over, his objectives were to clean up the books, pay the good young players, excise as many bad contracts as possible, and reorient the franchise so its nucleus has as many opportunities to compete for the Cup as possible. They are one large step closer in that direction. The next goal: get Point signed.
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