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Metamorphosis: Sonny Milano starting to emerge

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Perhaps Frank is finally earning Tortorella’s trust?

New York Rangers v Columbus Blue Jackets Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images

After a tough off-season for Columbus Blue Jackets fans that saw the well-documented free agent exodus, we could all still come together to discuss the one player that everyone has an opinion on: Sonny Milano. It’s all pretty well documented – the kid with the strange skating style and a penchant for bad angle shots, skilled offensive moves, less than stellar defensive awareness, and a perpetual spot on Tortorella’s naughty list.

It feels like CBJ fans have been clamoring for Sonny to get more of an opportunity for years – and I suppose it has been years. In 2015-2016, he played 3 games. In 2016-2017, he upped that to 4 games. In 2017-2018, he finally seemed to have broken through – 55 games played! And then… Torts restored the balance to the force by only allowing Milano into 8 games all of last season.

*insert gif of Capt. Kirk shouting “Tooooooooooorts”*

An offensive guy doghoused for not playing defense? Happens often enough. Some say there’s ample reason, some say there isn’t. In any case, I think it’s fair to say that most of us fans viewed this as Sonny Milano’s last chance to make some kind of impact – if Torts would let him.

So what have we seen? A longtime commenter, Ville A, would say that year 3 is when a player really blossoms… Milano is technically in year 4, but this still seems to ring true. By the eye test, Sonny Milano has improved by leaps and bounds over his previous long stint in the NHL. Rare are the bad angle shots, much more common are sharp passes that create offensive opportunity for teammates.

Less common are the defensive lapses and seemingly aimless skating that some could point to, more common is strong play on the puck and more aware play away from the puck. He had a bad 3 game stretch where he was whistled for 3 penalties, but he’s generally a guy to stay out of the box. He isn’t the primary driver on offense – Oliver Bjorkstrand and Pierre-Luc Dubois are trading ownership of that role so far this season – but he’s settling into being a net positive.

Or is he? I admit I tend to lean pro-Sonny so I think he is…but do the numbers show it?

Here’s how Sonny compares this season (so far in 26 games) to his 2017-2018 season. (All stats from Natural Stat Trick)

On an individual performance basis, he’s on pace for a 28 point season compared to 25 in 2017. His assists are up and goals are down. He’s shooting at a slightly higher clip (1.12 vs 1.07 per game), but his shooting percentage is well down – 10.3% against 22% two years ago. His individual scoring chances are down as well – though this aligns with his increased focus in passing the puck to teammates.

On the fancy stats (which are more about his impact on the team), he’s right at 50% on the Corsi For scale and ahead of the pace on Fenwick For (by half a percent), but so is the entire team this season. The Jackets shoot more often than their opponents when Milano is on the ice – better than 2017. But here are the stats that make paledragon happy – Sonny Milano’s xGF and xGA per 60 are improved over 2 seasons ago. His pace on high danger chances for per 60 has increased quite a bit (13.4 vs 10.0) while his high danger chances against have slightly decreased (10.1 vs 10.5). So it isn’t all just a mirage.

Sonny’s time on ice has been similar to date as it was two years ago (much to the dismay of many), but that projection could change dramatically considering recent circumstances. In the first 22 games of the season, only twice did he have more than 14 minutes of ice time and 12 times he had fewer than 10 minutes.

In the last four games, Milano’s averaged just under 17 minutes a game with a high of 19:57 against the New York Rangers. If that continues, his 2019-2020 projections will really trend upward and easily surpass his 2017 season.

There’s a lot to be grumpy about this season especially as the veterans on the team have struggled to score. There are also some serious flashes of realized potential. Dubois and Bjorkstrand are the obvious choices, but so far this season, Sonny Milano is working hard to place himself in that conversation.

Keep playing him, Torts. Sonny might be getting it, after all.