Anaheim Ducks: Sonny Milano Still Has a lot to Prove in Anaheim

ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 28: Sonny Milano #22 of the Anaheim Ducks (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 28: Sonny Milano #22 of the Anaheim Ducks (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) /

The Anaheim Ducks recently re-signed Sonny Milano. However, he still has a lot to prove to earn a permanent spot in Anaheim’s lineup.

Once again, the dust has settled on what was the second last of the Anaheim Ducks RFA’s requiring a contract. The Ducks have signed the 24-year-old Sonny Milano to a new two-year extension worth an annual average salary of $1.7 million dollars.

This leaves only Jacob Larsson remaining of the Ducks RFA group up for a contract at this time. Of course, Ryan Miller, Michael Del Zotto, and Matt Irwin are still unsigned, although they’re UFA’s. However, I digress.

Coming off of a 1-year, $874,125 deal signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets, this new deal by the Ducks is quite a significant salary increase for the former 16th overall draft selection (2014.) For this price, The Anaheim Ducks buy a year of restricted free-agency with arbitration rights and a year of unrestricted free agency. Many about the hockey twitter-sphere would consider this a “show me” type of deal, which would allow the player to prove that he belongs with the Ducks going forward.

Does Sonny Milano Have More to Show?

The question then is, “does Sonny Milano have more to show?”

Firstly, it’s worth looking at his body of work prior to the extension. Ducks fans will know him best for the five points (2 goals, 3 assists) he put up in his nine games with the Ducks playing primarily with Ryan Getzlaf and additional newcomer, Danton Heinen.

The peak arguable being his overtime winner coming against the Oilers in his 2-goal, Ducks debut, game. While Milano’s 0.55 point per game (ppg) pace, over 9-games, appears to be exactly what the Ducks needed, it is, however, worth noting that his scoring pace outside of the debut game was much lower and closer in practice to his scoring pace with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Specifically, excluding the debut game in which he had two tallies, Milano scored 3 points in 8 games, which was good for ~0.38 ppg. This pace is extremely similar to his ~0.39 ppg pace with the Blue Jackets prior to the trade deadline, and indeed his career pace of 0.38 ppg (~0.36 excluding Ducks games.)

While it may seem somewhat unfair to exclude the goal-scoring games, Milano isn’t necessarily known as a big-time goal scorer. For instance, his debut with the Ducks was the first time he had scored a goal in 12 games. Prior to that game, he had only scored five goals in 46 games.

While the 9 games he played with the Ducks is most certainly a small sample size, it largely fits into the body of work he had produced leading up to that moment. He was also given the opportunity to play with the Ducks best skater in Ryan Getzlaf.

Small Sample Size Leads to Big Questions

It won’t get much better from here, so the question is, whether he is the producer he presented as over the entire 9 game sample or is he the producer he presented as in Columbus and the 8 games outside of his debut while in Anaheim? $1.7 million dollars and 2 years isn’t necessarily a big outlay for the Ducks, and they can certainly afford to take the risk to find out.

Compounding Sonny Milano’s point producing pace, are some figures that are largely underwhelming at first blush.  With the Ducks, Milano shot the puck ~4.75 times per 60 minutes of ice time, at even strength. Good for the 17th highest volume shooter amongst all Ducks forwards last season. However, his is a clear decrease from the 6.54 shots per 60 he fired off in Columbus (16th amongst forwards.)

The reduction in shot metrics is partially due to Milano receiving a greater share of ice time in Anaheim, however, he also simply shot the puck less in Anaheim than in Columbus. A decrease in shots per game of ~0.22 shots per game. The decrease in shots presents a moderate correlation with a decrease in goals per 60 minutes and primary assists per 60 minutes.

Thus, the Anaheim Ducks could be banking on Milano increasing his shot count moving forward, and it seems likely that he could easily rebound to at least the rate he shot at in Columbus. If so, it’s possible that an uptick in scoring could be seen. It’s worth noting here, that much of Sonny Milano’s production in Anaheim came from secondary assists and that outside of his debut game, he was merely a supporting piece on his line alongside Ryan Getzlaf and Dan Heinen.

A Possible Power Play Solution

It is also worth noting that Milano has seen relatively little power-play time in his career thus far. He has some room to move in this department should he prove to be a useful facilitator of offense.

In his time with the Ducks, Milano played in excess of 2-minutes of power-play time and recorded the highest points per 60 minutes of power-play ice time, amongst forwards in this facet of play. Though once again, a great deal of his production came from secondary assists, which perhaps isn’t optimal for a scoring forward. It does, however, show that the Anaheim Ducks were willing to move the puck through him, and opens up some avenues for hope moving into next season.

It seems likely that the coaching staff has a lot of work to do in this regard, as Milano’s shots rates declined by ~1.6 per 60 minutes of play with the man advantage compared to his even-strength pace. He also presented poorly with many shot related metrics, such as scoring chances, high-danger chances, and expected goals. Perhaps there is only room for so many playmakers, and with Getzlaf commanding such a presence, Sonny Milano was left out of the loop.

The player’s inability to command a prominent offensive role, may be a small indication as to why he was largely kept away from special teams in Columbus? If Milano is to find success on special teams in Anaheim he will be required to, at the very least, find avenues to get the puck on net with greater frequency.

Nonetheless, when taken together, it can be said that Milano does have more to show the Ducks. An increase in shooting rate is highly likely to increase the number of goals he scores, as well as primary assists which would potentially come from rebounds created. This would be true on the power play and at even strength. Hockey gods know the Ducks could use some improvement on the power play.

Room for Improvement

A further area that Sonny Milano can show improvement in is his transition play. Quite strong as the floating defensive forward, Milano has shown in the past that he is quite adept at exiting the defensive zone and carrying the puck through the neutral zone to enter the offensive zone with speed. He doesn’t have the defensive chops like Troy Terry seems to be developing, but should a different player disrupt the opposition’s offense and regain the puck, Milano can utilize his skating to exit the zone with relative ease.

If anything, this would be Milano’s calling card as a player. However, with the Anaheim Ducks, he didn’t do this very often, if at all. In fact, he has no rush attempts credited to him in the 9 games he played. Thus, should Milano find a niche as a puck mover in transition, greater offensive opportunities may open up for him going forward.

Wrong Side of the Aging Curve

With all of this said, it should be noted that Milano was drafted as a big-time scorer, and while he has teased with his ability, he has yet to put it together. At 24-years of age, Sonny Milano is also on the wrong side of the aging curves – which at my 37 years definitely hurts to say.

Nonetheless, typically speaking, the vast majority of players tend to begin scoring at lower paced from 24 years onwards, than they have prior to that. The decline is slow, not really impacting output greatly until 26 years of age, but the decline is certainly there. At least in most cases. Thus the question begs, should offense fail to materialize, what else can Milano bring to the Ducks?

Unfortunately, not a lot. Defensively Milano is quite a mess. He bleeds shots (and scoring chances) against at even strength, and as a result, presents relatively high expected goals against. For the most part, Sonny Milano’s high-risk, high-reward style of play has kept him in the positive for expected goals percentage, however, this was not the case with the Anaheim Ducks last season and he came with under a 50% share for the first time in his career.

This could in part be attributed to playing with a new team and in a new system that even the long-serving players struggled to navigate. Though other newer players like Dan Heinen had little trouble fitting in seamlessly, thus perhaps there is a hockey IQ issue, or a coaching issue, with Milano. Dallas Eakins has this long off-season to impress the Ducks style of hockey on Milano, and should he succeed, it’s plausible that Milano will be able to drag his way out of the red and back into the positive.

It’s not entirely noteworthy, but worth mentioning, that Sonny Milano typically plays against high levels of competition. Meaning he routinely plays against some of the opposition’s best players. It might behoove the Anaheim Ducks to consider him in a lesser role than he has been placed in, in the past. Initially, playing against weaker players would likely expose him to a lesser degree defensively, thus mitigating a relatively large flaw in the players’ skill set.

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The secondary benefit would be that he may be able to score a little more prolifically by taking advantage of weaker players poorer positioning. A contract of $1.7 million isn’t too onerous to be hidden on a third or fourth line as a pseudo-scorer depending on the direction the Ducks wish to go with their bottom 6 forwards. Should they attempt to create 4 scoring lines, Milano seems like he could have a place amongst the eight wing players.

Should the Ducks choose to go in a more defensive direction with one of their lines, then Milano could potentially see himself squeezed out of the line up by a younger player with more perceived upside. A lot may ride on how he responds during this long offseason.

The Odd Man Out at the Expansion Draft

The Ducks gambling on Sonny Milano to succeed also creates another wrinkle (or perhaps boon) for the franchise leading up to the expansion draft. If we assume that Ryan Getzlaf is “exposed” as an unsigned UFA and is signed after the draft takes place, the Ducks will have a number of players under contract, and will not be able to protect them all. Of the bigger names, Adam Henrique, Jakob Silfverberg, and Rickard Rakell will require protecting.

From there, it is a fleet of younger players and new acquisitions. Troy Terry, Sam Steel, Max Jones, Dan Heinen, Isac Lundesterom, and the now signed Sonny Milano are all potentially open to being grabbed. That’s 9 forwards, and at best, the Ducks can only protect 8 of them. While Henrique and Silfverberg are aging, they’re also amongst the most productive of the Ducks forward group. It would hurt to lose them for nothing.

Rakell is a homegrown, former, 30 goal scorer. Terry, Steel, and Jones have all shown flashes of being useful players, and each has shown a scoring ability that is not too dissimilar to Milano’s. Lundestrom is a Ducks first-rounder who has yet to be given a real chance in the NHL and it seems out of character to give up on a player they’ve yet to really see play in the big leagues. Heinen scored at a greater rate than Milano did, while with the Anaheim Ducks, and has a far stronger defensive bent to his play.

Thus, already, Milano seems to be the odd man out. If the Ducks give up on him, then he would appear to be an easy choice for the new Seattle team to take a chance on, should they choose to select a forward from the Ducks instead of one of their potentially available defencemen (Christian Djoos perhaps?)

Certainly, $1.7 million seems to be a reasonable amount to bet on a young former first-round selection. Yet for my money, Sonny Milano might be the odd man in the race for an Anaheim Ducks roster spot. While he is on a 2-year deal, he only has 1 year to show he isn’t expansion draft fodder.

For a player with little to no defensive ability, and on the wrong side of the aging curve and an already slow scoring pace, Sonny Milano would need to put in a season he’s yet to do in his young career. He has a lot of work to do to prove that he belongs in Anaheim, but here’s to hoping he can do it.

Data sourced from @naturalstattrick, @ShutdownLine, @EvolvingHockey, @NHL

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