Sonny Milano Deserves to be in the NHL - Permanently
The Ducks' young forward has nothing left to prove in terms of competing at the highest level
Even if you’re not the most serious hockey fan, there’s a decent chance you’ve heard of Sonny Milano. He was a feature player on the bronze-medal-winning United States squad at the World Juniors in Finland back in 2016, and was drafted in the first round two years prior by the Columbus Blue Jackets. He also made a ton of headlines early in the 2019-20 season when he scored this ridiculous goal against Dallas (which you probably forgot about), and also made some other headlines a few months before that for some not-so-good reasons after being charged with assault after a verbal altercation that also featured Avalanche forward A.J. Greer escalated quickly. Not enough evidence was found, and the charges were dropped.
That may be troubling to some people, and that legal incident could be a byproduct of a larger-scale issue of attitude problems that could be the reason he’s no longer with the squad that drafted him. Whether that’s true is just speculation at this point, but I can tell you this, for certain: Sonny Milano, the hockey player, is better than I believe most of us give him credit for. He drew a ton of attention as a prospect, and while he may never become the player Columbus projected, and the fact that he was taken over Travis Sanheim, Alex Tuch, David Pastrnak, and Brayden Point at the draft is displeasing for Jackets fans to think about, there is just no excuse to keep him in the press box for any longer. For the sake of being realistic, the Anaheim Ducks don’t exactly have much better to offer up front; I would even experiment and give him some occasional top-6 ice time next season.
I believe Milano to be, at the very least, a solid top-9 forward whose NHL team finds itself in the perfect window to give him a permanent fixture in its lineup. The Ducks are rebuilding and have solid young pieces already, what with Troy Terry having found his way into the NHL and Trevor Zegras knocking at the door, so what do they have to lose? I’m about to outline some parts of Sonny Milano’s game that are very encouraging to me, using stats and video. Not meeting hefty expectations as a first-round pick normally has an unhappy ending for most players - but to me, that isn’t the case with this one.
At this point, Milano’s game doesn’t stand out in an abundance of areas: Aside from some okay neutral zone numbers and above-average quality shot generation, he doesn’t seem that special.
However, that positive offensive impact, despite some pretty poor powerplay numbers and below-average defense, was enough to make him a positive-impact player overall. A few things from this viz do stand out to me, though: He’s got a good shot, which a few youngsters struggle with considerably. He drives play well through the middle of the ice on top of that, which is always an encouraging sign for players with average (or worse) impacts. Something that was initially a bit more puzzling to me, though, is his market value, which sits just under $3.5M. The average market value (my interpretation of it, at least) of all NHL skaters was just a microscopic smidge over $4M in 2019-20. How on earth could a player who spent just over 13 minutes per game on the ice, and who played just 55 games this year, still be “worth” a small amount under the average NHL player, and still be in the top third of all NHLers in terms of expected standings points above replacement?
To try to find the answer, I went to his GAR and xGAR splits between Columbus and Anaheim this past season, and they’re actually pretty fascinating. Milano was worth -0.6 goals above replacement during his 46 games in Columbus, and 0.5 during his 9 games in Anaheim. He had virtually flipped the negative impact he had over 46 games in Ohio, completely around during just a fifth of that in southern California. Looking at xGAR, he was worth 2 in his time in Columbus, and 1.2 in Anaheim. All signs indicate towards a player that started rapidly improving once he changed addresses, which is fantastic news for the Ducks.
Let’s get a bit more specific. His even-strength offense GAR component dropped from 1 to -0.6 when he went down south, so in Anaheim, the pucks stopped going in. Again, though, this was a 9-game sample, so it’s not unreasonable to think that he would’ve gotten some bounces before season’s end, had the season finished as scheduled, of course. Aside from that negative EVO figure, he did just about everything else right. His powerplay offense component jumped from -1.2 to 0.7, so taking on a more prominent role on the man-advantage was extremely beneficial to him. As such, I’d expect his powerplay numbers to turn around in 2020-21, provided the Ducks don’t decide to give his time there to anybody else.
Looking at defense, his expected even-strength defense component elevated from -0.3 to 0.4, so there is evidence to suggest that he improved his two-way game once arriving in Anaheim. He also stopped taking penalties once he got traded, and while he was never bad at drawing them, he started to do so at a higher rate upon changing uniforms. The fact that he was not only better at drawing penalties, but on the powerplay as well, is a combination that could take Milano a long way. He improved every facet of his game after deadline day, and a change of scenery most definitely helped. There’s still more yet.
You are reading that correctly. Of all NHL forwards, only Montreal’s Joel Armia had more shot assists outside of the offensive zone in 2019-20 than Sonny Milano. He also had a better-than-average rate of controlled offensive zone entries (kudos to Corey Sznajder for the data and the chart). Milano is great at creating rush opportunities and making passes that lead to shots from the middle of the ice and his own end. A lot of both the Ducks’ and the Blue Jackets’ scoring chances this season can be traced back to the work that Milano did to find his teammates from different zones. His offensive results are bound to increase as a result, and if he can continue to be this valuable of a playmaker for Anaheim as his role increases, then the team is going to reap the benefits as well.
Sonny Milano is a very strong playmaker, and an above average player in terms of volume in the offensive end. By now, we’ve got a pretty good idea of the type of player we’re dealing with; specifically, his varying set of strengths. Now it’s time for film study.
When scouting a player that I think could become something bigger than he is now based on his stats, I tend to look at his best games of the year, because it’s at those points where he’s showing his potential the most. There was one game in particular in my film study that I feel I need to show you all: It was back when Milano still played in Columbus. He posted his highest single-game xGF% of the year (in games where he played more than 2 minutes) in this one, but was not on the ice for any goals for or against, mostly because this game was against the Rangers on December 5 and Alex Georgiev stood on his head to shut down a Jackets team that was infinitely better than his. It was during this game that Seth Jones, who has developed quite the reputation in Columbus, scored one of the prettiest goals we saw from a defenseman all year, so I know that nobody is going to remember this game for Sonny Milano’s performance, especially because he did not score. However, he was nothing short of dominant.
There was one thing about Milano really stood out: His passing. He seemed to be able to find an open man in front of the net in half a second every time he made a pass. His passes were quick and accurate, and always had the Rangers defense one step behind. The level of awareness and ability to speed the game up that Milano showed in this one had to have been one of the reasons the Blue Jackets were so high on him in the 2014 draft, and it makes it even more puzzling as to the specifics of the deal in which he was sent to Anaheim (we’ll get to that later). There are three outstanding plays he made in this one in particular, which I broke down in an Instagram post that you can see here.
Players like Milano will get the chance to have their passing abilities scoped out for all NHL fans to recognize when puck-tracking data makes its way to the public in 2020-21, barring complications to the season due to COVID-19 that make that impossible. If he can put on the display he did in this game against New York on a consistent basis in Anaheim with fewer skilled forwards ahead of him, the Pacific division is going to be in trouble for years to come.
Again, I don’t think Sonny Milano will ever reach the high ceiling that he was initially projected to hit as a prospect back in 2014, but I feel like Columbus gave up on him too soon. Sure, the change of scenery benefited him, but they still dealt away a very talented player still a year away from his 25th birthday, and I’m curious to see how the Ducks use him moving forward. If the problem for the Blue Jackets was that they couldn’t find room for him in their lineup, then this has turned into a real unfortunate situation for them, because they sure couldn’t find room for the guy they acquired for Milano either.
No disrespect to Shore, but the Blue Jackets used him in just two playoff games, and when they used him in the regular season, he was deployed less than his trade counterpart. I believe Milano would have at least helped them put up a bigger fight against Tampa, who exercised the demons of 2019 against their first-round foes. Bob Murray’s moves as Ducks GM that involve the NHL roster directly have been questionable since his team slid out of contention in 2018-19, as he can’t seem to accept their rebuilding fate, but this was a smart acquisition.
Between what the stats say and what I watched, I don’t see an excuse to put Milano up in the press box once every five games, or to play him for less than ten minutes a night. I understand that he dealt with injuries and the aforementioned court case, but this is no longer a placeholder-at-the-bottom-of-the-lineup type of player. Sonny Milano deserves a bigger shot with the Ducks in 2020-21 than what he got with the Blue Jackets this past year, and it’s good to see that, as a former first-round pick who didn’t live up to initial expectations, his career is finally beginning to turn a corner.