There are always one or two players (sometimes three) who stand out in training camp and surprisingly earn a spot on the NHL roster to start the season. And there are several moving parts to signing an NHL contract with a player who is in camp at a PTO. The decisions that are made about the players Already under contract must be taken into account when creating lists.
For example: is the player who is under the NHL contract exemption exempt? All things being equal, if the PTO player has won a contract, is he the best fit for the salary cap? Or does he save the cap dollars for another time during the season?
From my perspective, the first two or three games of an exhibition season can lead to bad decisions and assumptions that end up hurting teams.
This is where a bit of a reality check should be observed. So far, preseason NHL teams have gotten back into shape with the lineups they’ve put together for games. NHL mandatory teams wear at least eight regulars during the exhibition season.
So let’s take a look at a couple of interesting bubble players for an NHL roster spot in a Canadian team’s lineup, what I’ve seen from them so far, and what it could mean for them next.
PTO Player: Sonny Milano
Just on the surface, Milano hasn’t delivered enough offensively in the Flames’ camp. He isn’t generating quality scoring chances or consistently finding pucks in high-danger areas. The reason the Flames brought him to camp was to see if he fit into their group of top six forwards.
Even though he failed the vision test in training camp, here are some other considerations for or against signing or acquiring a player:
GP in 2021-22: race record 66
AVERAGE TOI: 15:31
PP: Primary Unit
PP Points: 5G-5A
Average per game SOG: 1.42
Pts in games won: 19
Pts in games lost: 15
Penalty minutes: 10
Milano has always been an enigma for me. It has a sensational disco touch. You can handle the puck as if it were attached to your stick.
He is more of an opportunist than a game driver. He lurks on the perimeter before showing up around the area and seizing scoring opportunities from him.
Here’s a shot map of where Milano scored his goals for Anaheim last season:
I also take into consideration his results against quality opponents.
Milano scored 19 points in the games Anaheim won last season and had a plus-11 in them. He scored 15 points in regulation/overtime turnovers and was minus-19. His first 29 games played last season in the months of October, November and December produced 22 points. His last 37 games played from January to April produced just 12 points.
Lastly, he impacted the game more consistently against opponents at or near the middle/bottom of the ladder.
He was a plus player against Vancouver, Arizona, San Jose, Buffalo, Ottawa, Washington and Los Angeles. But he was an even or negative player against the rest of the league.
Over/Under is a statistical line that can be debated. There are certainly gaps in the analysis, but it draws enough of a picture to be a talking point.
Conclusion on Milan… I don’t see a path to a top six finish in Calgary for Milano. Darryl Sutter expects his players to compete in all three zones and contribute some of the heavy lifting on his own. Milano’s training camp hasn’t been good enough to ignore historical shortcomings in his game. The Flames have better options and will be better suited to saving or spending cap dollars elsewhere.
One option Calgary could consider is moving Dillon Dube to a more prominent role in the top tier of their lineup. Dube has the skill set to be used in a variety of roles. He showed up to camp in phenomenal shape and can last more minutes. His playoffs didn’t go as planned, but his regular season ended on a high note. Dube scored nine goals in the month of April alone.
His 18g-14a overall stat line is solid considering he was rarely used on the power play and he averaged 11-15 minutes of ice time depending on game scenarios.
Dube and newly signed Nazem Kadri could have the potential to make life miserable for opponents. They are programmed in the same way. Whoever is on the other end will also benefit from alignment.
There is competition in Edmonton for jobs in their defensive matchups. The top five spots on the list have already been filled by Darnell Nurse, Cody Ceci, Brett Kulak, Evan Bouchard and Tyson Barrie.
Here are the candidates for the final opening:
Philip Broberg: The Oilers’ 2019 first-round draft pick is in a battle with Markus Niemelainen for a top-six spot to start the season.
Broberg has added some weight and strength to his frame. His identity as a player is that of a transition/two-way defender. He is not a punishing player. At the AHL level, he has played to his strengths and produced offensively. When he gets more comfortable at the NHL level, he should be someone the Oilers can trust to skate pucks from their zone, lead the run on occasion and join the game as an extra layer.
Markus Niemelainen: Scouting is not an exact science. Players evolve and change as they develop. Niemelainen is an example of a player who identified how he is best suited to becoming a contributor at the NHL level and leaned into it.
In his third year, and earlier in his development, Niemelainen was more of a “bumper” than a punishing physical presence. He has said so in recent interviews. When he was developing as a junior with Saginaw (OHL), he thought it best to focus on trying to assert himself offensively. He didn’t see his role as a tight defender.
Fast forward to today and he has shown me and the Oilers that he is capable of playing a heavy style and making opponents aware of his presence.
Both Broberg and Niemelainen have to prove they are capable of making sound decisions with the puck at the NHL level. Sometimes keeping things simple is the best approach.
Considering their play to date at Oilers training camp and following my process, I see the Oilers fielding the following pairings in the regular season:
It’s neck and neck as the preseason winds down, but the physicality Niemelainen brings to the Oilers wins over Broberg’s potential offense and transition advantage.
Ryan Murray is a veteran player who can slot into the lineup and provide solid relief down the stretch.
Wildcard: Dmitri Samorukov made big strides in the AHL last season after a disastrous one-game audition in the NHL (2:30 ice time and minus-2). His stat line at Bakersfield was 51 games played, three goals, 15 assists and 44 penalty minutes.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAVES
Some interesting candidates have emerged in the Leafs camp.
Denis Malgin has positioned himself to at least be in the conversation for an NHL job. Zach Aston-Reese offers an option on a control lane and has the potential to balance out the bottom-six forward group.
But the striker I’m most interested in following this week is Nick Robertson.
Roberston has struggled with injuries for much of his career and has clearly identified the need to get stronger, reporting to Leafs camp at 5-foot-9, 183 pounds. Anyone who has followed his development can see the additional core strength in his game at this training camp.
The real test will come this week when the Leafs’ next set of preseason opponents (Montreal and Detroit) wear full NHL rosters and Robertson is challenged to overcome the toughest of opponents.
Robertson needs to generate offense at this level, so if he continues to contribute and score goals in the process, he will certainly be in the Leafs’ opening night lineup. Here are the kinds of things he wants and needs to see from Robertson:
Having identified Malgin’s productive training ground thus far, it presents an interesting dilemma for Toronto.
Do you keep him on your roster to start the season in case Robertson stumbles, or do you work the phones trying to see if there’s a team willing to trade a draft pick for Malgin’s services?
Toronto does not have a fourth-round pick in the upcoming draft and the 2023 class is one of the deepest in recent memory. There’s a real chance Malgin has increased his value in recent months with strong performances at the World Championship (12 points) and in Leafs camp. He will be claimed on waivers if the Leafs decide to try to trade him to the AHL.
If the unexpected happens and Roberston is sent to the AHL, he does not require waivers.