Ramblings: Reviewing J.T. Miller’s season and looking for the next J.T. Miller
Sometimes, all it takes is for a player to get into the right situation. All it takes is the right line mates to bring a player from being somewhat obscure to being one of the most valuable players in all of fantasy. There's one guy who fit that bill last year and we're going to spend some time reviewing his season, as well as looking for the next in line.
Before the 2019-20 season, I was particularly high on J.T. Miller (I had him ranked much higher than consensus over on FantasyPros). The basic premise was that he was a guy who proved he could post 20-goal/50-point/100-hit seasons and had done so with decent ice time limits and infrequently great line mates. My theory was that he would, at worst, be skating with Bo Horvat at even strength (hopefully with Elias Pettersson), as well as top PP minutes. Thankfully, this all came to fruition and he had already set career-highs across the board when the season was suspended. For once, I didn't look like an idiot.
The question then becomes: was his superlative 2019-20 season a new normal or an outlier? Let's dig in. Most stats from Natural Stat Trick.
What sticks out immediately is his 15.65 percent shooting at 5-on-5. That puts him in the 85th percentile of forwards, but it's not as if it's obscene compared to what he's shown to us before; he shot 14.8 percent in 2015-16 and 13.1 percent in 2016-17, both with the Rangers. Still not quite to his level in 2019-20, but it shows he has been a high-percentage shooter before. In fact, in the four-season span from 2015-2019, Miller was just outside the 85th percentile in shooting percentage (41st out of 261 forwards with at least 2500 minutes in that span). So, yeah, his shooting percentage is high, but relative to the rest of the league, he was about as proficient as he's always been. There's going to be some regression, but if he keeps his line mates, maybe there won't be much.
The next point to bring up is his secondary assist rate, as it was the second-highest rate of his career. We point that out because we know secondary assists can be volatile season to season. The counterpoint to that is Miller was on the ice for by far his highest on-ice goal rate at 5-on-5 of his career at 3.57 goals per 60 minutes. Last year was his first (and only) season above 3.0 goals to date. That his team scored 20 percent more goals per 60 minutes than his previous career-high mark and he still didn't even set a career-high in secondary assist rate probably shows that he wasn't overly lucky in this regard.
About that on-ice goal rate… there may be some concerns here, given the team shot 10.44 percent with him on the ice at 5-on-5, and he had never been above 9.6 percent in a full season in his career. But again, playing with Pettersson probably helps a lot here. Pettersson had an on-ice shooting rate in his first season of 9.9 percent and that climbed to 12 percent in 2019-20. That Miller went and (mostly) skated the season with an elite centre and posted career-high scoring rates shouldn't be a huge shock. If he had stayed in Tampa Bay and done this with Brayden Point as his centre, this wouldn't be a huge shock, either. Playing with elite centres drives up scoring. Quelle surprise.
When looking at other areas, there are high rates but not career highs: shot rate not a career high, primary assist rate not a career high, IPP not a career high. All either the second- or third-highest marks of his career, but not career-bests.
Looking at this in totality, there's nothing that immediately screams monster regression. Sure, his individual 5-on-5 shooting percentage will probably come down, and his on-ice scoring rates maybe a touch. What we're talking about, though, is a guy who would go from being over a point-per-game player to a guy who can put up 70-75 points. It's a drop, but it's not as if it's catastrophic by any stretch, and when including his very stout hit totals, I don't think there's any reason for concern next year. We'll see where his ADP lands, but I would be comfortable taking him inside the top-50.
It's easy to forget we've already seen some fairly high highs from Palat in the past. His rookie 2013-14 season saw him post 23 goals and 59 points (his only 20-goal season, by the way), and he followed that up with a 63-point season in 2014-15. He also had a 52-point season in 2016-17, and had the 2019-20 season finished, he may have reached 20 goals this year (he had 17 in 69 games). The bits and pieces are here.
What makes the parallel to Miller an easy one to make is the level of hits and lack of shooting: both players have at least five seasons of 100-plus hits (Palat has six) and both have posted just one season of at least two shots per game. A winger that hits a fair amount, doesn't shoot a lot, and has posted solid-but-not-elite point rates over many seasons? Yes I think the comparison is apt.
The reason for bringing up Palat specifically is the Lightning are undoubtedly going to need to unload a contract. They have over $76M in commitments for next season, only have three defencemen signed, and need to give Anthony Cirelli a new contract. We don't know what the cap is going to look like next year but it seems a safe bet that a contract will have to go. I've mused before that one of Yanni Gourde or Tyler Johnson makes the most sense, but Ondrej Palat fits that bill as well.
There are a lot of obstacles preventing Palat from being the next Miller even if he is the one that gets moved. He needs a landing spot where he gets an elite centre, more minutes, and significant power play time. There aren't a lot of spots like that in the NHL. Elias Lindholm won that lottery a couple years ago, and Miller won it last year. Edmonton would be one spot perhaps, but with the emergence of Kailer Yamamoto, maybe that ship has sailed. San Jose is possible, but that team has cap issues of their own. The Islanders would make sense in this regard, but winger depth may be an issue here as well given Josh Bailey, Anders Lee, and the emergence of Anthony Beauvillier. I would also consider Detroit but I'm not sure trading for a guy with two years left on his contract would be the best idea for them at this point.
There is a lot to like about Palat's game but there are just too many cooks in Tampa. I think he can be the next J.T. Miller, he just needs the right landing spot. There are a lot of bridges to cross.
Another name that came to mind when writing about Miller was Tomas Tatar. The guy has one year left on his deal and that will be his age-30 season. I don't see the Habs extending him, so he'll likely be traded at some point; maybe the 2021 trade deadline (if it happens).
All the same, we've seen what Tatar is capable of to a degree. He had a career-high 58 points in his first year with the Habs and was even better in year two, posting 22 goals and 61 points in 68 games. He did that, mind you, with a combined 22 power-play points in those two seasons. He may have been a 70-point player in 2019-20 had the season finished anyway, he certainly would have gotten there had he been on a team with a great power play (he had 14 PPPs).
He's also a guy that hits, having two seasons with at least 90 hits back in Detroit, and he was on pace for over 90 in 2019-20 when the season was suspended. Maybe he won't post the 120-hit seasons like Miller or Palat can, but I also think he's shown to be a better goal scorer than either of them in his career as he's posted six straight 20-goal seasons. At the same time, when his next contract starts, he'll be 31, so there’s a lot of uncertainty here.
Out of all of this, it made me realize we're just looking for the next Andrei Svechnikov. That guy posted 24 goals and 61 points as a 19-year old while posting 116 hits in 68 games. Those are stupid numbers. No reason for including them other than I like talking about Svechnikov every once in a while.
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