The summer of 2017 was not kind to Brandon Pirri. Then 26, Pirri had just played a career-high 60 games with the New York Rangers. But after scoring just eight goals, he knew the team wouldn't want him back. It was already his third NHL team in as many seasons, and fourth since he debuted for the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010.
"It was a stressful time for me," he said. "I was an unrestricted free agent. Guys work so hard to become unrestricted free agents, that's usually their payday. For me, I was battling for my job."
There were reports that Pirri was going to sign with a team in Switzerland, but he says that's not true. "It's funny, I don't have social media or anything, and all of the sudden I'm getting calls from family members like, 'What the hell? You're going to Switzerland?'" he said. "I was like, 'No, why?' I wanted to play in the NHL. I believed in myself. So that was my goal."
He signed a professional tryout contract with the Florida Panthers, where he had previously played for three seasons. But at the end of camp, he got cut. Pirri was good friends with many players on the team. His wife, Elyse, was friends with many of the spouses. "I took it hard," he said.
Compounding matters: Elyse was pregnant with the couple's first child. As a professional hockey player, he knew he couldn't demand stability, but at least for right now, he just needed to know where home would be. So he called his agent and said, 'Get me to Chicago,' where Elyse is from and the couple has an offseason home. Pirri says he was lucky his agent had a good relationship with Vegas Golden Knights GM George McPhee. He signed a one-year, two way deal with Vegas and was assigned to its AHL affiliate, the Chicago Wolves.
Pirri, a second-round (59th overall) pick of the Blackhawks in 2009, was totally fine with being sent to the minors for the first time in four years. He'd figure it out. Little did he know, the dose of humility was exactly what he needed to revive his career.
"My journey is a little different than most," he said. "I don't think everything happens for a reason, but I do know it all worked out."
Over the past month, Pirri has emerged as one of the NHL's hottest goal scorers, working his way to the top line for the Golden Knights -- who, by the way, are surging themselves after a mediocre start (Vegas has the league's second-best record since Nov. 21, going 19-4-3 in that span). Pirri has played in only 10 games, but he has a cult following in Vegas after scoring seven goals in his first eight. Entering the week, he trailed only Alex Ovechkin in goals per game (0.70). It's a small sample size, of course, but the word on Pirri was that he had good offensive skills -- which had tantalized the Blackhawks, then the Panthers, then the Ducks, then the Rangers -- but the competitive level and defense was off at times.
For the first time as a professional, he's flexing a complete game consistently.
So what gives? Pirri credits perspective. In the middle of the season with the Rangers, Pirri deleted his social media accounts. "I was getting too worked up on things I couldn't control," he said. "I wouldn't necessarily search my name, but if you want to find something, you'll find it. I don't think it helps at all. Stressing over that wasn't good for me."
That was Stage 1. Next came his arrival to the Wolves. Pirri was named an alternate captain. He was playing meaningful minutes and was counted on to contribute offensively; he lived up to it, sharing the team lead with 29 goals.
"I was put in a really good opportunity," Pirri said. "The team was depending on you, and I liked that. Being the go-to guy made me enjoy the struggles I had to get to that point. It certainly helps your game when you're having fun, and I was having fun playing hockey again. That was big for my career because for a bit there, when I was being moved around a lot, I lost that."
Pirri's son, Luca, was born in January 2018, and fatherhood changed him. When he left the rink, he didn't think about hockey. At times he used to "stress out" about what he did or didn't do on the ice the previous day. Now, Pirri found himself feeling much freer. "I come to the rink re-energized," he said.
Pirri began this season just as hot in Chicago, being named an AHL All-Star after leading the league with 41 points (17 goals, 24 assists) in just 28 games. And when the opportunity came to crack an NHL roster again, he was ready. Pirri made his Vegas debut on Dec. 20, and mostly playing along linemates Paul Stastny and Alex Tuch, he has thrived.
There have been bumps since then. Despite the production, Pirri has been sent down twice to the Wolves, a trigger point for fans. It's a byproduct of the Golden Knights' construction. Because the expansion team hasn't been able to work its prospects into the lineup yet, there's only one entry-level contract (Tuch's) on the roster. Since Pirri had played less than 10 games, he was able to be sent down to create room -- for example, when Max Pacioretty returned from injury -- without being subject to waivers; other players might have been claimed. It's the same dance the Knights played with Tuch and defenseman Shea Theodore last season.
Pirri thinks one of the reason he's meshed so well with the Golden Knights is that the locker room is relatable. The team that prided itself as the Golden Misfits last season still feels like a group of underdogs.
"More so than every other team in the league, most guys here have played in the minors," Pirri said. "So they get it, they've been through it, guys bust chops about it, but everyone has done it."
Pirri said that he understands the demotions and has "taken it much better now than when I was younger. It's something that's hockey business, that's out of your control, so you have to understand that." His most recent trip down to Chicago actually couldn't have been better timing: it was Luca's first birthday, and he was able to be home for the party.
Now Pirri has reached the 10-game threshold, meaning if he gets sent down again, he might get claimed by another team. Keep up the production, and he will. Then again, if he keeps up the production, he might never go back down again.
"I somehow always believe in myself, it's just a matter of opportunity," he said. "Am I surprised that I'm scoring at this clip? Yes. But at the same time, I think I'm capable of it. The best part about this year -- it's just the whole situation. I appreciate everything about my journey."