Columbus Blue Jackets

What surprising Sonny Milano adds to Columbus attack

Columbus Blue Jackets' Sonny Milano (22) scores the game-winning goal against Carolina Hurricanes goalie Scott Darling during overtime in an NHL hockey game in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017. Columbus won 2-1. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Gerry Broome/AP photo

He wasn’t even a lock to make the opening night roster, but three games into the NHL campaign, Sonny Milano has become the first rookie in Columbus Blue Jackets history to score in three straight games to open a season.

In other words: He’ll stick around Columbus for a while.

Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella stuck the former first-round pick (Milano went 16th in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft) on the fourth line Tuesday night in Carolina, but Milano promptly earned an in-game promotion and scored a pair of goals, including a dazzling overtime winner, to place him atop the NHL’s rookie leaderboard in goals.

Tortorella may not yet know where Milano belongs on the Blue Jackets’ depth chart, but he has learned quickly this season that he needs to slot him in and get him a large chunk of minutes. Milano has spent most of his even-strength minutes with Nick Foligno and Oliver Bjorkstrand. He has demonstrated great chemistry with Bjorkstrand.

That has to be a relief for the Blue Jackets’ brass.

Heading into training camp most of the question marks were up front in Columbus. Boone Jenner has been out with a back injury, Brandon Dubinsky missed all but the last preseason game due to aftereffects of his offseason wrist surgery, and Josh Anderson missed training camp while negotiating a new deal. The chaos was a blessing for the three rookie forwards in the Blue Jackets’ lineup on opening night—Pierre Luc-Dubois, Markus Hannikainen are the other two—and Milano has taken his opportunity and run with it from day one.

It’s been eye-opening. Milano has proven to be a deft playmaker, one who is better equipped for the pace and physicality of the NHL after a productive season with AHL Cleveland last year. He scored 47 points in 63 games in what has been his best professional season to date.

“It’s the story of training camp and obviously the early season,” says Aaron Portzline, who covers the Blue Jackets for The Athletic. “The club said all the right things about him heading into the season, but I don’t think anybody expected him to make the team, even with all the open spots that they had.”

Portzline says the biggest surprise is that Milano’s decision-making with and without the puck has improved drastically.

“His skill has always been there, his speed has always been there,” he said. “What kind of decisions does he make when little decisions make a big deal at the NHL level? They don’t [get you in trouble] at juniors, they don’t as often in the AHL, but you almost always pay for mistakes in the NHL. He’s cleaned up that part of his game. He’s making better decisions and he’s letting the skill come when it’s the right time.”

Milano considers himself more of a playmaker, and when you watch him it’s easy to see why. He’s slick with the puck and creative, often making the types of passes most players don’t possess in their repertoires. It’s why he’s proven to be a good fit with hard-shooting Bjorkstrand. It’s why he could one day be a fit with Artemi Panarin.

It’s probably too early to bank on that, or anything for that matter, three games into a rookie season, but the mere fact that Milano is looking like a bona fide offensive catalyst in Columbus is great news for a team that has plenty of weaknesses to deal with up front. With an average age of 24.907, Columbus is the youngest team in the NHL. On a lineup littered with rookies, breakout performances from the kids are not a luxury, they’re a necessity.

Milano seems to be on the fast track to earning his keep as a top-six forward in Columbus this season, but there are no guarantees when taskmaster Tortorella is at the helm. Milano will have to continue to simplify his game and avoid making too many rookie mistakes.

“That’s where I’m going to keep my thumb on him,” Tortorella quipped after the season opener. “Making sure he makes simple plays, and then when the offensive chances come, he’s on his own.”

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