Sonny Milano arrived in Washington in mid-October determined to prove himself after he went unsigned after a busy NHL offseason. He found himself at a low point in his NHL career, unable to find the right fit with an organization that believed in him.
Then, Washington, injury-laden and searching for a spark, came calling. The Capitals signed Milano, 26, to one-year, $750,000 contract less than one week into the regular season.
After a brief stint with Washington’s American Hockey League affiliate, Milano quickly emerged as a key asset in the Capitals’ dramatic turnaround this season. He has seven goals and 12 assists in 31 games, including four goals in his past 10 games.
“First and foremost I want to help this team out and I am excited about the opportunity that they gave me and I own that,” said Milano, who was chosen 16th overall by Columbus in the 2014 NHL draft. “But definitely there’s a chip on my shoulder, obviously, from how the summer went. I did have something to prove.”
Milano had 14 goals and 20 assists in 66 games for Anaheim last season, and the Ducks opted to not re-sign the forward in the summer. The Calgary Flames later signed him to a professional tryout offer but released him shortly after he went scoreless in four preseason games.
Washington then took a chance on the winger. So far, the outcome has been mutually beneficial.
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“It’s been a great year so far,” Milano said. “Definitely super excited to be a part of this team and obviously got a little weird during the summer and didn’t know what was going to happen so I am happy to be here. Ups and downs, but so far so good.”
Milano has been a key contributor for a Washington team that has seen a resurgence in the last month and a half. The Capitals (23-15-6) were falling further away from playoff contention by late November but turned things around in December. Their next game is Saturday at home against Philadelphia.
Milano’s contributions have been noticeable. He’s earned his spot in a jam-packed Washington lineup and he has stayed there, even amid the returns of Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson.
Milano looked to be the odd man out when the two returned, but his offensive contributions and speed have kept him in. Anthony Mantha has been a healthy scratch instead.
“He is a skilled player that competes hard,” Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette said last week. “He has come in and has provided good offense for us — good minutes.”
Milano hasn’t been known for his defensive prowess, but he is proud of the recent work he’s put into that side of his game.
“It is important to me,” Milano said. “I don’t know if that is something others know, but that it is important to me. Definitely, I’ve worked hard to learn how to be a good defensive player over the years. It took a lot of correcting, but I think I made a lot of improvements.”
Milano’s teammates have also been impressed with him.
“I feel like he has the opportunity to be him on our team,” center Evgeny Kuznetsov said. “So far I like what I see from him and I think the coach likes what he sees from him too.”
Kuznetsov said that when Milano was released from his professional tryout agreement with Calgary, Kuznetsov floated his name to his hometown Kontinental Hockey League team in Russia and suggested it try to sign him.
Kuznetsov said he remembered Milano from his time in Anaheim and Columbus and liked his willingness to make a risky play as well as his awareness of when to pull back and stay conservative.
“I like when good players come and play like that … I was very high on Sonny and then two weeks later [Washington] signed him,” Kuznetsov said. “I just spoke with [the KHL team] a few days ago and I was like, ‘You see what happen?’ and they were like, ‘Yeah, man you were right.’ Unfortunate for them and good for us.”
Milano and Kuznetsov have played on a line together at times this season and Kuznetsov has praised Milano for his ability to be in the right spot at the right time with little to no communication.
“He’s pushed me a lot, too,” Milano said about Kuznetsov. “At first I was very timid, you don’t want to make a lot of mistakes but he helped push me and my game and I really respect that from him.”