Although NHL Free Agency opened on July 11, there are still notable names that are still unsigned, such as Nazem Kadri (Colorado Avalanche) and Phil Kessel (Arizona Coyotes). Contending teams may look to add extra insurance players when there are still big players available. The Chicago Blackhawks don’t fit that description, but they could still take advantage of depth players. The one name that sticks out as someone that could be a good fit is former Anaheim Duck forward Sonny Milano.
Milano’s Career in Anaheim
Milano will be entering his eighth NHL season next year. He started his career with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2016 before getting traded to Anaheim in Feb. 2020. He signed a two-year, $3.4 million contract extension in July 2020 and has completed his contract, making him an unrestricted free agent. The Ducks decided not to pick up his $1.8 million qualifying offer, and he is still unsigned. It’s a bit shocking considering that last season was the best of his career in all categories, as he finished with 14 goals and 34 points in 66 games. He mostly played on the second line with rookie phenom Trevor Zegras, and those two had great success together. Remember Zegras’ “Michigan Goal?” That was assisted by Milano, which makes for a cool story, as he ended the season seventh on the team in scoring, fifth in shooting percentage (14.9%), fifth in power play goals (5) and eighth in power play points (10).
Yet, for a guy coming off a career-best season and someone that has established great chemistry with the Ducks’ superstar, why would they let him walk? It seems like the type of player that you keep for a rebuild as his qualifying offer was more than reasonable. Apparently, there were some concerns on the Ducks’ end about his play. Eric Stephens of The Athletic gave more clarity on the situation stating, “The 26-year-old was never known for his defense, and it was obvious that coach Dallas Eakins tried to limit the exposure of him and Zegras in the defensive end when they had them together. Milano’s production with Zegras wasn’t enough to overlook or offset their deficiencies in Anaheim’s end of the ice. He had only five points while playing away from Zegras at even-strength and his metrics apart from him weren’t as impressive” (from ‘Anaheim Ducks NHL free agency preview: 10 candidates who could fit’, The Athletic, 07/12/22).
Milano started the season with 19 points in his first 24 games but then cooled off with only five points in his last 24. If you’re a Blackhawks fan, reading that analysis may not sound enticing, but I think there is more to him than meets the eye.
Milano’s Fit With Blackhawks
Something that stands out about Milano is his style of play, as he is known for bringing speed to the wing and for his goal scoring. The Blackhawks have been targeting speed lately in the NHL Draft and with their recent free agent signings that include Andreas Athanasiou.
Milano reminds me of former Blackhawks Dominik Kubalik and Dylan Strome. I believe he shares similarities to Kubalik because he can bring that goal-scoring element but can’t defend well. I don’t think that is too big of a concern for the Blackhawks because they are not in a winning position since they also signed Max Domi and Athanasiou knowing that defense was not their strong suit either.
Milano also reminds me of Dylan Strome because the most significant criticism he received during his time in Chicago was that he struggled to produce if he wasn’t playing with elite talent like Patrick Kane or Alex DeBrincat. With the way Chicago’s roster looks, it may seem counterproductive to place Milano on this roster with most of their elite players gone. However, Kane and Jonathan Toews are still on the roster, and with Milano being regarded as a second-line player, I don’t see why he couldn’t play there with either of them as his linemates.
I think most of the Blackhawks’ lines will interchange anyways, and Milano could end up having good chemistry with Kane, Toews, or Domi, as all of them are known for their playmaking. If that is what he needs on his line to succeed, then he has some options, and he might positively affect those players as he did for Zegras. The Blackhawks can try him in the top-six or in a depth role, and he can also play a part in the power play. Maybe a new environment with head coach Luke Richardson can bring out the best in him, no matter where he plays.
Another thing that is worth noting is that in Nov. 2021, it was reported that the Ducks told Milano that he needed to play a style that fit the Ducks best instead of one that personally fit him best. Coach Eakins said he likes to play more on the outside, but because of his speed, they wanted him to play on the inside. He told him, “Go to the net, get inside the opposing defenders and take your best shots from close range” (from ‘Ducks asking more of speedy winger Sonny Milano this season’, The Orange County Register, 11/07/21). He was applauded by the coaching staff and his teammates for adjusting his game, and it showed in his point production last season.
Now, Milano is a player described by the Orange County Register as relentless on the forecheck. He also wants to be a difference-maker every game. That is someone the Blackhawks could benefit from having on their roster. Last season the Ducks finished with 31 wins and in games where he had one or more points, it accounted for 16 wins or over 50 percent of their victories. That made his production more crucial, and Anaheim struggled when he went cold.
Blackhawks Need More Skill
When looking at the Blackhawks’ roster, it’s clear they need more depth and skill, and at this point, everyone’s position is up for grabs. Four of the eight free agents they signed are on two-way contracts, meaning they will likely be seeing a lot of time with their American Hockey League (AHL) team, the Rockford Icehogs. I believe next season will be a “try-out” for the prospects and free agent signings to see who could be a fit for the future. Adding someone like him to the roster definitely won’t hurt, and the club could get him for a reasonable price.
Milano has to prove that last season was not a fluke and that he can produce at a high level consistently, which might help the Blackhawks in negotiations. I believe he could get offered a one-year, $2.5 million “prove it” deal, which could work, as the team has over $10 million in cap space.
The Blackhawks have nothing to lose by signing him. He may or may not work out, but if he did, that would be even better for the rebuild, as he’s a former first-round draft pick (16th overall) with still a lot to prove. When talking about Milano, Zegras stated, “He’s just a good player. Makes the right plays. Hard on the puck. He’s great on the forecheck. I think that’s something we do well together. We’re good at hunting pucks and getting on D. We create a lot of turnovers. It’s just easy playing with him” (from ‘After a ‘do it or else’ conversation, the Ducks are getting the best from Sonny Milano: ‘It’s amazing now’, The Athletic, 12/07/21).
You can never have enough skill in the NHL. Milano has proven that he has the talent, and now he has a new style to show for it. So why wouldn’t the Blackhawks want to give him a chance?
Just a small town girl with Midwestern charm; combined with a love of dogs, writing, frappuccinos, Chicago-isms, sports, and a whole lot of Blackhawks hockey. Twitter: @brooke_lofo.