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Milano excited for chance with Blue Jackets

by Craig Merz / Columbus Blue Jackets

COLUMBUS -- There are many changes between the Sonny Milano who attended his first Columbus Blue Jackets development camp a year ago after being selected 16th in the 2014 NHL Draft to the Milano who showed for his second go-around June 29 to July 2.

There weren't the persistent questions about his immediate future; whether he would fulfill his commitment to attend Boston College or play in the Ontario Hockey League.

Milano gave his answer several weeks later when he opted to play in the OHL for the Plymouth Whalers. Milano led Plymouth in scoring with 68 points, including 22 goals, in 50 games despite missing more than a month at the start of the season because of facial fractures sustained at the NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, Mich., in September.

Milano came into this year's development camp around 200 pounds, about 15 pounds heavier. He's been living in Columbus this summer and taken advantage of working out with Blue Jackets players such as Brandon Dubinsky and Boone Jenner as well as several other prospects.

"They asked me to stay," Milano said of the Blue Jackets staff. "I'm not going to turn down a chance like that to be working out with the pros, being in Columbus and getting to know the area.

"I really needed to focus on gaining muscle and gaining weight. I worked hard on heavy weights. I'm maturing too, getting older. I need to keep gaining strength. I need to make harder plays on the ice. That's something they really stress; harder plays and harder passes and get better defensively like I've been doing."

Milano, 19, is a skilled and flashy left wing who had a heralded two-year stint with USA Hockey's National Team Development Program. In 2013-14 he had 87 points (29 goals, 58 assists) in 58 games to finish tied for the NTDP Under-18 team lead with Jack Eichel, who was the second pick in the 2015 NHL Draft by the Buffalo Sabres.

Milano also changed his approach from last year.

"It was a lot different considering it's my second year now," he said. "I knew what to expect coming in and performed a leadership role. I was a little bit more prepared. I was a lot more comfortable this year."

The Massapequa, N.Y., native has set his goals higher this time around.

"I do want to make the Blue Jackets this year," he said "We'll see at the regular camp in September. This is summer camp. This isn't the time to make the team."

He's buoyed by the number of rookies Columbus used last season, although some of that was out of necessity because of the inordinate amount of injuries. Forwards Alexander Wennberg, Marko Dano, Kerby Rychel and Josh Anderson, and goalie Anton Forsberg, made their NHL debuts.

"You see those guys do well and it gives you a little more confidence thinking if they can do it I can do it too," Milano said.

But there are no guarantees that Milano will be in a Columbus uniform this season; he likely will be with the Lake Erie Monsters of the American Hockey League to start the season.

"Guys are on their own schedule when they're going to make it," Blue Jackets development coach Chris Clark said. "Some mature quicker than others. Some will make it in a year. Some guys will make it out of their first training camp or it might take three or four years. There's no magic formula. I wish there was."

Milano's ascension in the organization was quickened when he was promoted to the AHL for the final 10 games of the 2014-15 season. The Springfield Falcons (the Blue Jackets affiliate at the time) were in the playoff picture, and Milano fit right in.

He got his first professional point 4:43 into his debut when he assisted on Luke Adams' goal.

"It was unbelievable," Milano said. "Every single game I played in was a playoff game because we were battling for a spot. It was really intense."

Springfield coach Jared Bednar said Milano embraced the pressure.

"That's what you're looking for," Bednar said. "That's what elite players strive for. They want the puck on their stick. He was excited to be put in those situations to help the team and he did."

Milano finished with five assists in 10 games. And even though he had a minus-7 rating, Bednar was pleased with Milano's effort.

"When you have a talent like that, as a coach you're often worried about the defensive side of the game and how's going to be able to defend and how responsible he'll be, but that's where I was most pleasantly surprised," Bednar said. "He needs to get bigger and stronger but there's no denying his talent, skating ability and ability to make plays with offensive instincts.

"It's not an easy transition coming out of juniors to the American Hockey League, especially at the end of the year when everything is ramped up. That can be an eye-opening experience for some guys. I thought he handled it very well. He stepped into our team and gave us a little boost that we needed."

The June 30 trade that brought Chicago Blackhawks left wing Brandon Saad to Columbus for forwards Artem Anisimov, Dano, Jeremy Morin and Corey Tropp could present opportunities for prospects such as Milano and Oliver Bjorkstrand.

"I don't want to get ahead of myself on that," Milano said. "I still have to prove myself. I have to come to camp and give 100 percent and see where it takes me. After that, it's out of my control."

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