WINNIPEG – Development isn’t a linear path, and it certainly isn’t predictable. Just ask 2023 NHL Draft selections Colby Barlow and Thomas Milic.

Milic, a 20-year-old selected in the fifth round after being named the Western Hockey League’s top goaltender, began his 2023-24 campaign with the Winnipeg Jets ECHL affiliate in Norfolk.

By the end of the season, he had played in the Spengler Cup and backstopped the AHL’s Manitoba Moose in two games of the Calder Cup Playoffs.

“It’s pretty cool looking back now, a year ago at this time, I was just getting my feet wet at this camp and meeting everyone,” said Milic. “Now, coming back and having that first year of pro under my belt with a lot of games is pretty cool.”

The product of New Westminster, BC got his first taste of pro hockey last season, and was a star between the pipes – literally, as he was named an ECHL All-Star – in Norfolk. He had a sparkling 11-3-2 record and a 0.908 save percentage.

Thomas Milic on his time with the Moose last season

Those numbers caught the eye of the Manitoba Moose coaching staff and Jets management. He earned his first recall to the Jets AHL affiliate in November, and after returning to the ECHL, he came back on a permanent basis on January 22, 2024.

“Pretty impressive for a young first year player to take over the starting role in the American Hockey League as a goalie,” said Manitoba Moose head coach Mark Morrison.

“We were impressed with him. A lot of work to do to carry on, but he certainly did a very good job for us and the future looks bright.”

If all that pro experience wasn’t enough, Milic represented Canada for the fourth time in his career over the holidays at the Spengler Cup in Davos, Switzerland. On and off the ice, it was an incredible learning experience for the goaltender, who got the start in goal against the host squad from Davos.

“It really felt like a European soccer game, with the chants they do,” said Milic. “I couldn’t understand what they were saying. It wasn’t in English, but it was pretty cool. I heard my name in a few of them. Hopefully it was good things.”

Canada lost the game, but playing in that environment certainly helped Milic a few months later against the Texas Stars in the first round of the AHL postseason. The Moose lost the best-of-three, with Milic facing 57 shots combined and stopping 50.

Mark Morrison on opportunities for young players

It all culminated with Milic putting pen-to-paper on his entry-level contract on May 3, 2024.

“That was pretty special, for sure,” said Milic. “That’s obviously been a goal of mine for a long time, especially the last two or three years. To be able to get that out of the way was pretty special. But at the end of the day, nothing really changes.”

Barlow signed his ELC on September 21, 2023 and began his 2023-24 campaign with the Jets prospects at the 2023 Young Stars Classic in Penticton, BC. Shortly after signing his deal, Barlow was set to take part in his first Jets training camp.

An illness prevented him from fully participating, but when Barlow returned to captain the Owen Sound Attack of the Ontario Hockey League, he began the season on a torrid pace.

He had eight goals in his first six games, and nine in his first 14 overall – then, adversity hit.

Colby Barlow from Development Camp

A back injury put a halt to his momentum and his season. He was out for a month and a half, and while it was frustrating for the then 18-year-old, he used it as an opportunity to learn.

“I just have a way better routine now to strengthen and activate my body before I get out on the ice,” said Barlow. “Just so it’s as strong ready and warm as it can be when I get out there in case it does go into an awkward position, it can sustain it because it’s warm and stretched out.”

He returned on December 30 and – just like the start of his season – he lit the lamp regularly.

His four goals in his first three games put him on pace to score 40 in total, the ninth most in the league despite missing a big chunk of the season.

When the Attack were eliminated in the first round by Saginaw (the eventual Memorial Cup champions), Barlow got the call to the American Hockey League and made his pro debut on April 14.

In three games, Barlow had one goal and three points.

“It showed me what I had to get better at to reach that level,” Barlow said. “That’s what I’m working on this summer. I’m feeling good, I feel good here. I’m just going to get better as the summer continues with those things in mind and come back the best player I can be.”

Now the challenge – for both Milic and Barlow – is to build on last season’s successes. That’s where the understanding of the development path is important. But for now, they’re both feeling a lot more comfortable at their second Jets development camp, as opposed to when they came in as the new faces one year ago.

“I’m just learning what I need to do in the summer and how to prepare for it,” said Milic. “With this camp here, I know what to expect as well. I’m trying to take advantage of the staff that are here and having all of the Jets staff as well.”