Behind J.T. Miller’s Breakout Season, Why He Complements Elias Pettersson

Behind J.T. Miller’s Breakout Season, Why He Complements Elias Pettersson

By Sheng Peng

Building a dominating line isn’t as simple as putting your three flashiest forwards together.

It’s about fit, skills that complement each other, players who complement each other like how J.T. Miller has clicked with Elias Pettersson. No other Vancouver Canucks skater has played more with Pettersson this season.

“Guys always complement each other when their game is a little different,” teammate Jay Beagle said. The ex-Capital is no stranger to dynamic duos, having played with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom for a decade: “Mills is a gritty, north-south type of player, but also has skill. If you put a guy like that with someone like Petey, who’s so young and skilled, sees the game so well, you’re going to have success.”

One of the more obvious ways that Miller has helped Pettersson is at the faceoff circle. Last year, Pettersson took 8.4 faceoffs per-game at 5-on-5 and won just 41.2 percent. This year, Pettersson is taking only 2.2, winning 44.1 percent. But Miller has filled the void, coming away with 59.1 percent of his 8.3 faceoffs per-game at 5-on-5.

But Miller’s impact goes beyond the dropping of the puck.

The solid 6-foot-1, 218-pound Miller presents an obvious visual contrast to the lanky 6-foot-2, 176-pound Pettersson. This contrast plays itself out on the ice, where Miller gets the puck, whereas Pettersson makes magic with it.

Off the January 2nd power play draw, Miller (9) has a step on both Dylan Strome (17) and Erik Gustafsson (56) for the loose puck. Miller backhands a pass to Brock Boeser (6), who finds Pettersson (40) in the slot.

According to data from SPORTLOGiQ, Miller ranks 12th among all NHL forwards (200+ minutes, all situations) with 9.1 Offensive Zone Loose Puck Recoveries Per Game.

Miller’s anticipation and quickness also stands out in puck battles he’s 27th among all NHL forwards with 2.1 Offensive Zone Puck Battles Won Per Game.

Miller stick checks and bodies off William Karlsson (71) in pursuit of the puck on December 15th. He then outquicks Jonathan Marchessault (81) along the wall to get the puck back to the point.

“He’s a strong guy,” Beagle noted. “He reads the game very well to put himself in position to win puck battles and come out with puck.”

This is winning the puck with authority: Miller, stick extended, anticipates Shea Theodore’s (27) first pass option, Nate Schmidt (88). The fleet-footed Theodore tries to beat Miller to the outside, but the forward stick checks the defenseman, stealing the puck. Miller then uses his body as a shield to keep Theodore from recovering it. 

“When I’m playing well, that’s one of the other things I’m doing, I’m winning my one-on-ones. Big body, strong on my stick. I’m skilled enough to make some plays with my legs and hands in the battle to win it,” Miller offered. “I know if you win your one-on-ones, something’s going to open up.”

Miller gets the puck in other ways. Perhaps the American forward’s most underrated talent is his propensity for picking off passes in the offensive zone. Miller is fourth among all NHL forwards with 2.24 Offensive Zone Blocked Passes Per Game.

Naturally, blocking passes in the offensive zone creates puck possession and offense.

Jake Muzzin (8) thinks he can sneak a pass through Miller on December 10th, but no cigar, Canucks puck.

Dillon Dube (29) u-turns with the puck, but Miller is lurking up high, gobbling up the breakout pass that he knew was coming.

Of course, playing with Pettersson isn’t just getting the puck to the Swedish wunderkind. If that was Miller’s only contribution, it would be easy for defenses to key in on Pettersson.

“Both of us can make plays,” Pettersson said. “If he has the puck, I’m trying to get open. If I have the puck, he’s trying to get open. Makes it easy to play with him.”

Miller added, “I’m not trying to play super-skilled like he is. When we’re sticking to our strengths, it’s easier to be on the same page.”

Miller and Pettersson have certainly been on the same page this year, as both are enjoying a point-per-game pace. If Miller can keep it up, it would be the 26-year-old’s first time in that select club. But it’s not just counting stats that demonstrate Miller’s offensive prowess — it’s subtle movements like these:

Miller is posted on the left wall, waiting for Adam Gaudette’s (88) rim pass. When the puck arrives, Miller feints his own backhand rim with an exaggerated motion and Jason Spezza (19) bites. This buys Miller time and Antoine Roussel (26) space in the slot.

Every skill that we’ve mentioned and more is showcased in this clip:

Screaming down the left lane on the forecheck, Miller blocks Tyson Barrie’s (94) pass. He then pickpockets Barrie, ripping the puck away. The defender reaches, trying to recover it, but the big-bodied forward Miller protects, rimming it back to the point. Miller then heads to the dot, deflecting the point shot.

Besides getting the puck for Pettersson, Miller also absorbs most of the punishment in the offensive zone and net front for his line. He’s ninth among all NHL forwards with 00:55 Offensive Zone Possession Time Per Game; he’s second with 0.41 Deflections Per Game. 

For Vancouver, the acquisition of Miller has been everything they could hope for and more. The versatile forward has blossomed with more icetime, clocking a career-high 19:54 Per Game, a sizable increase from last year’s 14:40 in Tampa Bay and previous career-high 17:01 in 2017-18.

Indeed, Miller is establishing himself as one of the top power forwards in the game:


All forwards (200+ mins)  OZ Possession Time OZ Loose
Puck Recoveries
OZ Puck
Battles Won
OZ Blocked Passes Deflections
Miller  9th (0:55 Per Game) 12th (9.1) 27th (2.10) 4th (2.24) 2nd (0.41)
Landeskog 31st 31st 4th 121st 44th
Meier 124th 65th 59th 164th 54th
E. Kane 122nd 41st 29th 101st 26th
Kreider 115th 88th 38th 143rd 32nd
M. Tkachuk 67th 39th 74th 65th 39th

Beagle knows: “It’s a hard thing to find, that third or fourth-line grit but in a top-six skill player.”