There was no doubt as to what General Manager Steve Yzerman was shopping for at the trade deadline. It was the same thing he had been looking for a long time: defense. As the days ground down to the end of February it wasn’t a matter of if he would add to the blueline, but who he would add. Erik Karlsson was the front runner, then it was Ryan McDonagh, then it was back to Karlsson with a little Mike Green as a dark horse candidate. When the dust settled it was McDonagh that swapped shades of blue to become the key piece that Mr. Yzerman added to the lineup.
While McDonagh was the big name added to the roster, the other player that was in the deal, J.T. Miller, might end up being the most important piece (and not just because it continues a Lightning tradition of having a player named “J.T.” on the roster which dates back to 2011*). The six-year veteran was most likely added to the deal later in the negotiations (if not, then it was just downright mean to have him fly all the way to Vancouver and back on deadline day) but has responded tremendously to the move south.
In fact, despite playing in only 13 games so far, he is already the most prolific scorer that Mr. Yzerman has ever added at the trade deadline during his tenure with the Lightning. In the 13 games since the trade, Miller has scored a team-leading 8 goals and recorded 6 assists. He’s found himself on the top line with Steven Stamkos at times in Coach Cooper’s Blend-o-Matic approach to line-making as well as on the first power play unit. Granted his competition for the title of Most Points by a Trade Deadline Acquisition (the MPBATDA Award) isn’t exactly stacked. Here is what he was up against:
Byron Froese - 2017 4 games 0 points
Braydon Coburn - 2015 4 games 2 assists 1-3-4 in 26 playoff games
Ryan Callahan - 2014 20 games 6-5-11 0 points in 4 playoff games
Adam Hall - 2013 - 20 games 4 assists
Eric Brewer - 2011 - 22 games 1-1-2 - 1-6-7 in 18 playoff games
Not really a Murder’s Row of elite scoring talent (a note on Coburn - he missed most of the post-deadline regular season with a lower body injury just a few games after being traded to the Lightning).
One thing this can tell us is that rushing out to pick up an offensive upgrade isn’t really Mr. Yzerman’s plan of attack. Most likely that’s because the teams that have had playoff potential were pretty stacked on the offensive side. Callahan, the previous MPBATDA title-holder under the Yzerman regime**, was the only forward picked up for a Lightning team bound for the playoffs, and that trade was more about offloading Marty St. Louis than bringing in talent.
The Miller acquisition shared a similar theme in that his inclusion was in part to replace the offensive production lost by Vlad Namestnikov going to New York. And he has more than done that. While it’s not fair to compare players in different situations, it is fun. Namestnikov has 2 goals and 1 assist in his 13 games with the Rangers. In his last 13 games with the Lightning, the Russian posted only 2 goals and 3 assists, maybe that’s more of a fair comparison.
Is the scoring going to continue for Miller? Most likely not. He isn’t going to continue shooting at almost 22% for the rest of the year. His 55% Corsi-for is also 4% higher than his career average. Still, with his speed and versatility he will play a productive role down the stretch and in the playoffs for the Lightning. He ability to play wing or center gives Coach Cooper a lot of flexibility when it comes to adding him in the line-up. He is skilled enough to hang on a line with Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov or defensively reliable enough to play on a shutdown line.
Playoff games usually aren’t very pretty. They are tough, tight-checking-make-no-mistakes-win-on-a-fluke-goal affairs. Wins often bring more of a sense of relief instead of actual joy (unless it’s a Game Seven win). Miller is a player that has the skill set to thrive in that type of environment. He brings a little more size than the average Lightning forward and is able to grind play out along the boards and behind the net. He also has the speed to get in and forecheck pucks that are dumped into the offensive zone. He has 16 points in 40 career playoff games, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him outperform those numbers in a Lightning uniform.
The Lightning love players that have a bit of fluidity to their skill sets and positions. It allows them to mix-and-match their lines depending on match-ups. Sometimes Coach Cooper might like it a little too much and can’t help himself from over-mixing during a game. Still, having versatile, offensively talented players isn’t the worst problem to have.
Winning the MPBATDA Award in the regular season is nice, but it doesn’t mean much unless they succeed in the playoffs (give Coburn the postseason version of this title for his series-clinching goal against the Red Wings). Only time will tell how Miller produces in the playoffs, but his inclusion in the deal once again shows how good the Lightning scouting staff is at fitting players with specific talents into the line-up.
*Hockey Reference lists four players as having played under the name “J.T.” Three of them have played for the Lightning (J.T. Miller, J.T. Brown and J.T. Wyman). J.T. Compher - Mr. Yzerman is coming for you!
** The all-time deadline points leader - Jeff Halpern who recorded 10 goals and 8 assists in 19 games following the blockbuster Brad Richards trade in 2008.