There is always a player or two (sometimes three) who stand out at training camp and surprisingly earn an NHL roster spot to start the season. And there are several moving parts to signing a player who is at camp on a PTO to an NHL contract. The decisions being made on players already under contract have to be considered when building rosters.
For example: is the player who is under NHL contract waiver exempt? All things being equal, if the player on the PTO has earned a contract, is he the best fit under the salary cap? Or do you 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 poor decisions, and assumptions, that end up working against teams.
This is where a bit of a reality check needs to observed. So far this pre-season NHL teams have eased their way back into form with the lineups they have assembled for games. The NHL mandates teams dress at least eight regulars during exhibition season.
So let’s take a look at a couple of interesting bubble players for an NHL roster spot in a Canadian team lineup, what I’ve seen from them so far, and what it could mean for them next.
Player on PTO: Sonny Milano
On the surface alone, Milano has not delivered enough offensively at Flames camp. He isn’t generating quality scoring chances or finding pucks consistently in high danger areas. The reason the Flames brought him to camp was to see if there was a fit in their top six forward group.
Even though he has failed the eye test at training camp, here are some other considerations for or against signing or acquiring a player:
GP in 2021-22: Career high 66
AVG TOI: 15 :31
PP: Primary Unit
PP Pts: 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. He has sensational puck touch. He can handle the puck like it’s glued to his stick.
He’s an opportunist more than a play driver. He lurks on the perimeter before presenting himself around the crease and cashing in on his scoring chances.
Here is a shot map of where Milano scored his goals for Anaheim last season:
I also take into consideration his results versus quality opponents.
Milano scored 19 points in games Anaheim won last season and was a plus-11 in them. He scored 15 points in regulation/overtime losses and was a 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 most consistently versus opponents at or near the middle/bottom of the standings.
He was a plus player versus Vancouver, Arizona, San Jose, Buffalo, Ottawa, Washington, and Los Angeles. But he was an even or minus players versus the rest of the league.
Plus/minus is a stat line that can be debated. There are certainly holes in the analysis, but it draws enough of a picture to be a talking point.
Conclusion on Milano… I don’t see a path to a top six role in Calgary for Milano. Darryl Sutter expects his players to compete in all three zones and contribute some heavy lifting on their own. Milano’s training camp hasn’t been good enough to ignore the historical deficiencies in his game. The Flames have better options and will be better suited saving, or spending, the cap dollars on another player.
One of the options Calgary could look at is moving Dillon Dube into a more prominent role in the upper tier of their lineup. Dube has the skill set to be used in a variety of roles. He reported to camp in phenomenal shape and can handle 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 overall stats line of 18g-14a is solid considering he rarely was used on the power play and he averaged between 11-15 minutes of ice time depending on game scenarios.
Dube and newly signed Nazem Kadri could have potential to make life miserable on opponents. They are programmed the same way. Whoever the other winger is will also benefit from the alignment.
There is competition in Edmonton for jobs on their defensive pairings. The top five roster spots have already been taken by Darnell Nurse, Cody Ceci, Brett Kulak, Evan Bouchard and Tyson Barrie.
Here are the candidates for the final opening:
Philip Broberg: The Oilers’ first round pick from the 2019 draft is in a battle with Markus Niemelainen for a spot in the top six to start the season.
Broberg has added some weight and strength to his frame. His identity as a player is that of a transitional/two-way defenceman. He isn’t 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 rely on to skate pucks from their zone, lead the rush on occasion, and join the play as an extra layer.
Markus Niemelainen: Scouting isn’t 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 become a contributor at the NHL level, and leaned into it.
As a junior, and earlier on in his development, Niemelainen was more of a “bumper” than a punishing physical presence. He has said as much in recent interviews. When he was developing as a junior with Saginaw (OHL) he thought it was best to focus on trying to assert himself offensively. He didn’t see his role being that of a shut down defender.
Fast forward to today and he has proven to 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.
Taking into consideration their play to date at Oilers training camp and going through my process I see the Oilers rolling out the following pairings come regular season puck drop:
It’s neck and neck as pre-season winds down, but the physicality that Niemelainen brings to the Oilers wins out over Broberg’s potential offence and transitional upside.
Ryan Murray is a veteran player who can be inserted into the lineup and provide solid relief for stretches.
Wild Card: Dmitri Samorukov made strides in the AHL last season after a disastrous one game audition in the NHL (2:30 of ice time and a minus-2). His stats line in Bakersfield was 51 games played, three goals, 15 assists and 44 penalty minutes.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Some interesting candidates have emerged at Leafs camp.
Denis Malgin has positioned himself to, at least, be in the conversation for an NHL job. Zach Aston-Reese provides an option on a checking line and has potential to balance out the bottom six forward group.
But the forward I am most interested to monitor this week is Nick Robertson.
Roberston has struggled with injury for much of his career and has clearly identified the need to get stronger, reporting to Leafs camp at 5-foot-9 and 183 pounds. Anyone who has followed his development can see the extra core strength in his game at this training camp.
The real test will come this week when the Leafs’ next set of pre-season opponents (Montreal and Detroit) dress full NHL rosters and Robertson is challenged to drive through heavier resistance from opponents.
Robertson needs to generate offence at this level, so if he continues to contribute and score goals in the process he will no doubt be penciled into the Leafs opening night lineup. These are the kinds of things you want and need to see out of Robertson:
Having identified Malgin’s productive training camp so far, he 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 is a team willing to trade a draft pick for Malgin’s services?
Toronto doesn’t own a fourth-round pick in the upcoming draft and the 2023 class is one of the deepest in recent memory. There is a real chance Malgin might have increased his value in recent months with strong showings at the World Championship (12pts) and Leafs camp. He will be claimed on waivers if the Leafs decide to try to slip him through to the AHL.
If the unexpected happens and Roberston is sent to the AHL he doesn’t require waivers.