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Bang for the Buck

Brian MacLellan and team have proven to be adept at uncovering hidden gems at bargain prices

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Washington Capitals v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

The 2022-23 NHL season started without Sonny Milano.

Despite coming off a decent 14-goal/34-point season for the woeful Anaheim Ducks, the former mid-first-round pick (16th overall in 2014) was without a contract as summer turned to fall.

And then the Caps came calling.

The parties settled on a one-year, $750,000 “show me” contract that would see Milano start the season in Hershey:

“We did our homework on Sonny and negotiated with his agent. We told them we would start him in Hershey to get him going and see where it goes from there. If he does well, there would be a spot for him. If he doesn’t, we’ll keep him in Hershey and use him as a call-up.”

Milano wasn’t in Hershey long before an opportunity opened up in injury-riddled Washington, and to say that the 26-year-old wing has made the most of it would be an understatement. With 21 points in 35 games, Milano ranks near the top of the team in production rates at even-strength and on the power play. He’s currently skating in a top-six role on what looks to be a strong line with rusty-but-getting-there Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson, and has made just about every duo he’s flanked better. He’s assisted on Alex Ovechkin goals and cashed in on Evgeny Kuznetsov and Backstrom assists.

And “cashed in” is probably a good phrase to use there, because the Caps have certainly cashed in on Milano; per CapFriendly, Milano is the lowest cost-per-point player in the League this year (standardized for an 82-game season, standard contract, UFA upon expiration). Teammate Erik Gustafsson is also high on the list. So are fellow Caps Conor Sheary, Marcus Johansson and Nic Dowd.

The Caps have found points, productive minutes (including Gustafsson and Trevor van Riemsdyk) and big saves (Charlie Lindgren) on the cheap, which is critical to staying afloat under the barrage of injuries they’ve faced and big contracts they have on the books that might sink other teams.

But the Caps keep chugging along like they have for years, remaining in solid playoff contention despite the self-assured pundit proclamations that, “No, this is the year they bottom out.” And the reason for it is that the Caps’ braintrust - Brian MacLellan, Don Fishman et. al. - keep finding and taking low-risk/medium-reward chances on guys like Sonny Milano.

They keep finding guys like Conor Sheary, who signed a one-year, $735,000 deal in December of 2020 then posted 14 goals in 53 games (a 21-goal pace over an 82-game season).

They keep finding guys like Gustafsson, who signed a one-year, $800,000 contract last summer and has given the team 26 points and 20 minutes a night on the blueline while missing just one game this season, and Trevor van Riemsdyk, who signed a nearly identical deal in October of 2020 before being bumped all the way up to $950,000 per year while playing 17.5 minutes per game since coming to town.

They keep finding guys like Stanley Cup Champions Brett Connolly (who scored 15 goals in 66 games for $850,000 in 2016-17) and Devante Smith-Pelly (who scored seven goals during the Cup run and cost the team $650,000 that season). Alex Chiasson, too, for that matter.

They keep finding guys like Nic Dowd, who signed a one-year, $650,000 deal just weeks after the Cup win, provided 22 points that season and has become as indispensable a piece as a fourth-line center can be.

There are other hits (and guys like Dylan Strome, if you expand your search up a tax bracket or two) and, to be sure, plenty of misses along the way - which, of course, is the nature of these low-stakes gambles. But the hits sure seem to be more frequent for the Caps under MacLellan than for some of their competition, and finding these diamonds (or cubic zirconia) in the rough has kept the Caps competitive longer and through more trying circumstances than some might have figured. And that’s money in the bank.