Making the jump from junior to the American Hockey League is one of the most difficult transitions in hockey.
The game gets faster, physicality turns up a notch, and players are smarter.
“It’s been pretty tough so far, but it’s a lot of fun,” Milano, 19, said. “I’m playing with guys who are a lot older and a lot more experienced. It’s definitely very good for my game, I’m learning a lot with these guys.”
While he is learning, Milano hasn’t caught fire in the AHL like fellow teenagers Mikko Rantanen, a Colorado Avalanche prospect, and Toronto’s William Nylander. Rantanen has 41 points in 33 games while Nylander has 40 points in 30 games. Both are amongst the AHL’s top-15 scorers and competed at the 2016 AHL All-Star Classic in Syracuse earlier this month.
Milano, who was drafted 16th overall in 2014, has been up-and-down in the AHL with the Lake Erie Monsters. Through 31 games he has a pedestrian 17 points (five goals, 12 assists) and has struggled to find consistency.
That lack of production started to generate rumors that the Blue Jackets would send Milano back to the Ontario Hockey League. That thought picked up more steam in media reports when the London Knights acquired Milano’s OHL rights from the Flint Firebirds in early January.
But the Blue Jackets like Milano learning with Lake Erie, even though he would inevitably put up more points in the OHL.
“You don’t learn stuff in juniors that you learn here in the pros,” Milano said.
And he has got a wealth of knowledge in the Monsters locker room to draw from with Manny Malhotra (991 career NHL games) and Ryan Craig (198 NHL games) as teammates.
“The way they handle themselves. Sometimes when you’re younger you just show up to the rink and get ready to practice,” Milano said. “These guys are here two hours before practice, stretching out, making sure they don’t pull anything. Foam rolling after practice, just the way they handle themselves it’s incredible.”
Milano said he is starting to “follow in their footsteps,” and he has attacked the second half of the season with more vigor. Part of that motivation comes from confidence gained at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship.
Milano helped lead the United States to a bronze medal. In seven games he had one goal and dished out seven assists for Team USA.
“I felt a lot more confident when I was back with my age (group),” Milano said. “With the puck, I felt a lot stronger. Corners were a lot easier.”
It also gave Milano indications playing in the AHL was the smart decision.
“It made me a lot stronger playing with these (AHL) guys and just habits as well,” Milano said. “I’m playing more of a pro-style game now because of that.”
The next step for Milano is putting everything together on a nightly basis. He has obvious talent, and he has been given opportunities on Lake Erie’s power play – now he just has to convert.
“This year is all about my development and getting better,” Milano said. “That’s how I’m looking at everything. Become a better player here (in the AHL) so I can eventually play my best game for them (Columbus).”
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