Sonny Milano has gone from NHL outcast to offensive dynamo

After drawing no interest as a free agent last summer, Sonny Milano has made the most of his shot with the Capitals.

This week we look at the NHL All-Star Game nominations, Connor Bedard, the scoring race, Sonny Milano paying off, new Vegas misfits and more. (Reuters)

Welcome to 10 Insights and Observations. Every Thursday, I’ll use this space to highlight teams, players, storylines, and general musings around the NHL.

This week we look at the NHL All-Star Game nominations, Connor Bedard, the scoring race, Sonny Milano paying off, new Vegas misfits and more.

Nice and Sonny in Washington

A lot of people were surprised when the Anaheim Ducks did not qualify Sonny Milano this past offseason. He just had a season with career-highs across the board in games played (66), goals (14) and points (34) playing primarily with Trevor Zegras. Not only did he not get qualified, but nobody signed him all summer either. He ended up signing a professional tryout with the Calgary Flames, but did not make the team. It wasn’t until Oct. 16 that Milano finally signed with a team, the Washington Capitals, and was promptly put on waivers to go down to the AHL. He played five games, scored a couple of goals while injuries mounted for the Capitals, creating space for a call-up.

He’s definitely not the sole reason for the change in fortune, but the Capitals were 5-5-2 to start the season, and are 16–8-4 since Milano played his first game with them. He has provided legitimate secondary scoring behind Alex Ovechkin’s never ending goal scoring ability, with 18 points in 27 games (a career-high pace), and has clicked reasonably well with Evgeny Kuznetsov as Washington has moved chess pieces all over the place due to their slew of injuries. He has always had the soft hands and could dangle with the best of them, but his speed has really leapt off the page lately. He doesn’t score here but he just blows by the defender, creating a 2-on-1 (he scored later in that game on the power play).

A few weeks later, he pulled away with the breakaway speed and a beautiful finish.

In that same game, he took the puck from his own hashmarks in the defensive zone the length of the ice and set up a goal. He’s a free agent again this summer and it’s hard to imagine he’ll linger on the market this time around.

Dallas getting contributions across the board

The Stars are having a great season so far, and like most teams that have a great season, they have a variety of contributors across the roster. The star players are well known at this point — Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz, Joe Pavelski, Miro Heiskanen and so on. One such player emerging along the way though is Wyatt Johnston.

The 23rd pick in 2021 is getting in his first season of action and looks like a real player. He’s still only 19-years-old, too. Through his first 40 games, he has 11 goals and 17 points and is already playing over 14 and a half minutes per game on a legitimate contender. When the Stars are losing and need a goal, he gets critical minutes — against the Kings he was on the ice with the Stars goalie pulled in the final minute (even though they didn’t score, just the level of trust is telling).

He has been stapled to Jamie Benn and they have outplayed and outscored their minutes by just a tad so far — outscoring opponents 19-16. But when you have the top line that the Stars do, if you have your secondary lines simply slightly outscoring opponents, you’re going to win a lot of games. Mason Marchment on the other side has made them a fun trio of skill with some snarl.

There’s nothing flashy about this, but I love everything about this goal. Marchment using his strength to win a battle, Benn with the pass up top on the tape and Johnston winning a battle in front to net a greasy goal.

He’s listed as a center, but can’t be relied upon in the faceoff circle just yet — he’s winning under 38 percent. Jamie Benn has been taking faceoffs instead (he’s second on Dallas in faceoffs taken). He will have to get stronger and work on that. The added strength will help his game in general as he has some jam in him. So far though, he looks like a player.

Feel-good story in Carolina

The Carolina Hurricanes have had a very strong defense for years now. They led the league in goals against per game last season and were fifth the season before that, as they do this year. Players like Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce have led the charge and rightfully received a ton of attention. Brent Burns has been a great fit so far. Then you look down the depth chart and see Jalen Chatfield, who at 26 has played in every game for Carolina so far this season, more than doubling his NHL games played total along the way. He has settled in a third pairing role with Calvin De Haan, another castoff of sorts, in a limited but reasonable role. They have 58 percent of the shot share and 56 percent of the expected goals, as well as a 13-10 edge in actual goals at 5-on-5. He is a no frills player but has some edge and jam to his game.

That’s a beautiful hit. He knows what’s coming next and is ready for it (kudos to Tage Thompson of all people stepping up in response). Undrafted, Chatfield spent three full seasons in the AHL before getting a cup of coffee in the NHL with the Vancouver Canucks. He signed with Carolina and spent of the most season in the AHL but did get called up to play sporadically in the NHL and was rewarded with a two-year, two-way contract extension in January. Chatfield didn’t get in any playoff games for the Hurricanes, though he did play 18 in the AHL that season. He hasn’t sniffed the AHL this season as a third pairing, right-handed defenseman with a mean streak.

Golden Knights are still a bunch of "misfits"

When Vegas first entered the league, they were lovingly referred to as the "misfits" of the NHL. It was a group of castoffs that most thought would be bad, but instead they flipped the script and went to the Cup final in their first year.

Since then, they have made a series of moves and brought in legitimate star power - Mark Stone, Alex Pietrangelo and Jack Eichel, most notably. It’s certainly not a misfit group anymore. At the same time, you look around the team and see a sprinkle or two of a player that still fits the misfit label. You look up at the top line right now and you’ll see Mike Amadio. A player that went from Los Angeles to Ottawa when he was traded straight up for Christian Wolanin, to signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs, playing three games and then being put on waivers, where he was claimed by Vegas. He has generally been a decent, play-driving fourth liner that can switch between centre and wing, and he's now producing at a career-high rate.

He’s on the hottest run of his career right now with eight points in six games. Amadio isn’t looking out of place here, doing a lot of the proverbial little things. Watch the lead up to this goal, as he takes the puck away from Vladimir Tarasenko, turns the puck up ice, gets a pass back and skates through the neutral zone with it before making a saucer pass on the tape to allow them to keep possession. That’s the difference. A lot of guys dump that puck in. Then he skates to the net and pulls the attention of a defender, opening up a lane for Pietrangelo to take the puck in and score.

Then there’s Paul Cotter, who we’ve talked about before and his path to the league. There’s original misfit William Carrier, who already has a career-high 10 goals. There’s Chandler Stephenson, still the most lopsided trade running in the league. I wouldn’t call a borderline Hall of Famer in Phil Kessel a misfit, but the truth is that he had a very limited market in the summer and signed for peanuts. There is undrafted Brayden Pachal getting in games. There is journeyman Ben Hutton getting a run of games in. Best of all might be undrafted goalie Logan Thompson being a solid starter. It’s a team full of stars when healthy, but the spirit of the misfit lives on in Vegas!

Gourde was the right pick for Seattle

Last week, we mentioned how the Leafs handled the expansion draft. When it came to picking from a pool of available players, perhaps no team presented a more difficult decision than the Tampa Bay Lightning. Their list of available players included Yanni Gourde, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, Ross Colton, Mathieu Joseph, Taylor Raddysh and Cal Foote. There’s a lot to choose from there. That’s quite the mix of established, effective hockey players and younger players that had flashed.

The Kraken went somewhere in the middle, selecting a late blooming, then 29-year-old Yanni Gourde (he turned 30 in December that year). Of note there, he’s the only true centre in that group of players, and centres are very difficult to come by. He was also in year three of a six-year deal that pays him just a shade over $5-million per season — a modest contract locked in at a reasonable term that provided enough certainty to build with him, unlike a player like Ondrej Palat who was a year away from becoming an unrestricted free agent.

Alex Wennberg has been handling the toughest matchups most frequently, but Gourde also takes on his fair share of tough matchups — the combination of the two lines has allowed the Kraken to free up Matty Beniers to focus on offense. In Tampa Bay, Gourde played a similar role. Good centres that can adequately go up against top players are one of the more difficult things to find in the league. With Brandon Tanev on his wing, his primary linemate so far this season, they have created a forechecking duo that has outscored and outplayed opponents so far (up 12-6 in goals at 5-on-5 in 265+ minutes together). They’ve tried putting Oliver Bjorkstrand on the other side and it hasn’t completely come together yet, but when you have three centres to rotate wingers through as the Kraken do, you have flexibility to play with your options.

The Gourde claim made sense at the time as a cost controlled and effective player at a reasonable age in a primary position. In his first year, he was second on the team in scoring, but the season itself was a poor one for the Kraken. As they have risen up the standings in year two, it’s starting to pay off and translate to what Seattle really wants: wins.

Bruins' impressive season could go the distance

If you look atop the team statistics, you’ll quickly notice that the Boston Bruins are second in goals scored per game, and first in goals against per game. They have had a special season so far all over the ice.

There is time for that to fall back - and the Jake DeBrusk injury does not help (he’s second on the team in goals), but if it holds, they’ll be in some good company, historically.

In 2010-11, the Vancouver Canucks finished first in goals per game and the lowest goals against per game, going to the Stanley Cup and losing to the Canucks. In 2012-2013, Blackhawks were second and first in goals per game and goals against per game respectively, going to the Stanley Cup Final and beating the Boston Bruins. The next season, the Bruins were third and second, but lost in Game 7 in the second round to the Montreal Canadiens. In 2014-15, the New York Rangers were third and third while the St. Louis Blues were fifth and fourth. The Rangers lost in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final while the Blues lost in the first round. In 2015-16, the Washington Capitals were second and second, losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. In 2016-17, the Washington Capitals were third and first… again losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round.

Finally, in 2020-21, the Colorado Avalanche finished first in goals per game and third in goals against per game, while the Vegas Golden Knights were third in goals per game and first in goals against per game. They met in the second round, with Vegas prevailing. While it wasn’t always the same season, all those teams have gone to at least one Cup in this decade. There’s something to be said for being that dominant on both ends.

Goal-scoring race missing significant name

Last season, Auston Matthews ultimately pulled away in a pretty entertaining Rocket Richard race between him and Leon Draisaitl. While it was close throughout the season, at some point it became apparent that Matthews was separating himself from the pack.

He won the Rocket the year before too and seemed destined to be there again. But he’s having a surprisingly low goal-scoring season, with only one multi-goal game so far. Because of that, we have quite the goal-scoring race developing. Connor McDavid appears hell-bent on leading the league in goals for the first time in his career. Tage Thompson is seemingly scoring whenever he touches the puck right now, standing only three tallies behind McDavid. They are followed by Bo Horvat having a career season (in a contract year!) as well as Alex Ovechkin, who seemingly never ages. Jason Robertson, Mikko Rantanen and David Pastrnak are all in the mix and can easily get hot and take the lead. Pastrnak already has a Rocket to his name. It sounds crazy because he’s already 14 back of the leader, but can Matthews catch fire and make it interesting? If anyone can do it, it’s him. All in all this is quite the goal scoring race we have shaping up here.

Bedard is ready to dominate in the NHL

The World Juniors have been great this year and the talk of the tournament has clearly been Connor Bedard, for good reason. He has an outrageous 23 points in just six games, and while he likely won't break Peter Forsberg’s record of 31 points, the fact that he even got in the conversation is impressive.

For quite some time now ,he has been the projected first-overall pick of the 2023 draft and this performance won’t be hurting his case in what looks like a stacked top of the draft class. In the WHL, he has 27 goals and 64 points in 28 games. His WHL scoring projects him to score 72 points in his draft-plus-one year at the NHL level. The last first-overall draft pick to hit at least 72 points as a rookie was Patrick Kane in 2007-08. Auston Matthews had 40 goals and Connor McDavid played at a pace above that but got hurt, to be fair, but still, it shows how hard it is for a rookie to step right into the NHL and light it up.

The list of elite players to be drafted after Kane is impressive - John Tavares, Steven Stamkos, Nathan MacKinnon, Matthews, McDavid and Jack Hughes headline the list. It’s a hard league to crack and produce in. This also really puts into perspective Sidney Crosby walking into the NHL at 18 and throwing up 104 points — Alex Ovechkin had 106 points as a rookie too but was a year older because the NHL was on lockout in what should have been his rookie season. The expectations for Bedard are sky high though. Fall hard for Bedard is real.

NHL nails the Winter Classic at Fenway

I feel like we always call the NHL out when things aren’t up to snuff, but kudos should be given where deserved too: the Winter Classic was great.

I know it was played by teams that have featured prominently in it already and that gets a little tired for people. Fair enough. But the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins are two strong teams full of stars. The game itself was entertaining and we just missed out on a buzzer-beater tying goal. The jersey matchup itself was aesthetically pleasing. Fenway park is an awesome stadium, one of the most historic venues in North America. Having a live orchestra play Sweet Caroline to tee the crowd up to sing was also a great idea.

The NHL gets a lot of flak and it’s largely deserved, but they have good moments too — this was one of them. Not even trying to compete with the NFL on a football Sunday was also a good idea — the NBA found out on Christmas Day that you simply can’t go up against them in this part of the world.

NHL All-Star system is far from perfect

The NHL announced a slight tweak to All-Star voting ahead of this year's festivities in South Florida next month. The NHL Hockey Operations Department will select the first 32 All-Stars — one representative from each team, including four goalies (one from each division). Then, fans select the remaining 12 players — two skaters and one goalie from each division — to complete the 44-man roster for the All-Star Skills competition and All-Star Game.

Compare this to the NBA, where the starting lineup for each squad is selected by a combination of fan, player, and media voting, while head coaches choose the rest of both teams. In general, basketball is an easier sport to have an All-Star game for because the players can go hard and largely avoid injury. That isn’t really the case in hockey, so they are always fighting an uphill battle. But the thing with basketball is because it’s largely voted on by people in the league (coaches and even players), when players don’t make it, they are genuinely upset and feel slighted.

The debates rage there. It’s a big deal to them. If your team has zero good players, they simply won’t have a representative at the All-Star Game. It is what it is. In the NHL, how can players feel the same? The hockey operations department is selecting the players and they have to select a player from every team? Then it’s a fan vote largely run through Twitter? Last season Nathan MacKinnon spoke out after Nazem Kadri didn’t make it, but it had an air of “the entire system is dumb,” not "my peers didn’t select him and that’s a slight". And to me anyways, until players genuinely care about making it, you won’t get what should be a celebration weekend to reach its full potential.

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