Sonny Milano had a long summer — and not just because his team missed the NHL playoffs.
Despite putting up 14 goals and 34 points in 66 games with the Anaheim Ducks in 2021-22, the winger was surprisingly cut loose and hit the open market after not receiving a qualifying offer.
All the 26-year-old could do was wait for another organization to show interest and sign him in unrestricted free agency.
The problem? A new deal never materialized.
“I was hoping for a contract,” Milano said. “But that’s where we are right now.”
In his case, that’s with the Calgary Flames at training camp on a professional tryout (PTO) — a situation a number of previously established NHLers find themselves in across the league every fall.
It’s a no-strings-attached agreement for both sides.
The player gets a chance to showcase himself to a fresh set of eyes in hopes of finding a home, while teams get a free look to see if there’s a fit.
The PTO signee has no guarantees or contract to fall back on, but is also conceivably auditioning for 31 other clubs if things don’t work out in a specific market, or a better opportunity materializes elsewhere.
The 14th overall selection at the 2014 draft by the Columbus Blue Jackets, Milano saw a chance to crack Calgary’s top-nine forward group.
“Stay positive,” he said of his mindset. “Just got to make the best of it.”
According to capfriendly.com, there are currently 42 players on PTOs at NHL camps, including 10 on Canadian rosters.
Calgary leads the way north of the border with three (Milano, Cody Eakin and Michael Stone), followed by the Edmonton Oilers (Jason Demers and Jake Virtanen), Toronto Maple Leafs (Zach Aston-Reese and Dylan Ferguson), Ottawa Senators (Derick Brassard and Michael Dal Colle) and Vancouver Canucks (Danny DeKeyser).
Of the 30 players on PTOs last fall, 10 went on to earn NHL deals.
Demers has played a combined 760 games in the league, but didn’t get a sniff last season. He instead suited up five times in the Russian-based KHL and five more with Canada at the Beijing Olympics.
“New territory for me,” said the 34-year-old trying to force his way into Edmonton’s lineup. “You never think you’re going to be in this situation, but I was grateful for the opportunity.”
Players on PTOs find themselves in a tricky spot. They want to impress, but also know the camp invite arrived for a specific reason.
“I don’t think I have to dangle a guy, go coast-to-coast and score every game,” said Aston-Reese, 28, who’s eyeing a job in Toronto. “They want to see me play physical and be a good depth guy.”
DeKeyser, who spent 10 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings and is looking to grab a spot on Vancouver’s blue line, said the idea of auditioning for more than one team is something he tries to ignore.
“Maybe there is somebody else watching as well if it doesn’t work out here,” said the 32-year-old. “The main goal in a PTO is trying to impress as many people as you can.”
With the NHL still coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, its salary cap only went up US$1 million this season to $82.5 million — the first increase since 2019-20.
With cap space often in short supply, Aston-Reese said not having the phone ring with a contract offer this summer was disheartening.
“What kept me going was there’s a lot of guys in my position,” he said. “A lot of good players waited all summer and a lot of good players ended up on PTOs.”
“Sometimes guys get squeezed out,” DeKeyser added.
Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said giving PTOs legitimate chances is important on a few levels.
“That’s why you recruited them,” he said. “(And) if you don’t do it, you’re unlikely to get anybody in the future. You’ve got to treat these guys well.
“Anybody who’s here is available to compete for a spot in our team … I want to put them in a position to succeed.”
An extreme long-shot to make the Leafs, goaltender Dylan Ferguson said it’s his job to stay in the building as long as possible.
“Things work how they should,” said the 24-year-old with exactly one game of NHL experience as an emergency recall from junior for the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017.
“I got a cool opportunity and thought, ‘Let’s do it.’”
The nature of a PTO means it’s a last-minute decision in many instances, forcing players to hit the ground running in unfamiliar surroundings with new systems and teammates.
Milano said he spoke to Flames head coach Darryl Sutter for the first time the day before arriving in Calgary.
“I have a lot to prove,” he said. “I thought I was worthy of a contract after last season.
“I’ve just got to prove I can do it again.”
Canucks head coach Bruce Boudreau said it’s difficult for PTOs to unseat someone with a contract, but it happens every year around the league.
“(PTOs) know they have to be good,” he added. “They have to be better than good to supplant somebody.”
Oilers general manager Ken Holland, who brought in Virtanen after the winger was found not guilty of sexual assault by a B.C. Supreme Court jury in July, said high-profile PTOs like the No. 6 pick at the 2014 draft need to understand the landscape has changed.
“You’re just another player who has got to come and bring a dimension to the team that makes it better,” Holland said. “You have a short window to try to impress.”
Aston-Reese said he had a few PTO offers, but Toronto was the right fit after more than 250 games with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“It came down to, ‘Where’s the best opportunity for me?’” he said.
And what about the possibility of catching on somewhere else — potentially higher up the lineup — even if the Leafs have a spot available?
“Like to think I’m a loyal guy,” he said with a smile. “Not in the cards.”
Demers, meanwhile, is grateful for what could be his last kick at an NHL can.
“I kept the faith,” he said. “You always hope somebody’s going to give you a chance.
“A lot of guys don’t get it.”
—Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press