Sonny Milano grew up an Islanders fan, even if his favorite team wasn’t exactly elite in the mid-2000s. He wears No. 22 for the Blue Jackets, though that was simply assigned to him, not a nod to Mike Bossy and the dynasty-era Isles that his family rooted for in Massapequa.
So Friday night was special for a lot of reasons — the 21-year-old Columbus forward made the Blue Jackets out of training camp for the first time in three pro seasons and it was a game against the Islanders.
At the 1:07 mark of the first, it got even more special when Milano snapped home his first NHL goal in his eighth NHL game, a validation of all the hard work the skilled winger put in this summer and in the last month for John Tortorella and a Blue Jackets team that didn’t look like it had lost anything from last season’s 108-point squad.
“Got right on the ice, puck landed on my stick,” he said afterwards. “I think I was out there about 15 seconds before the goal. Can’t plan anything better than that.”
Milano has long had that star quality. He was picked 16th overall in 2014 by the Jackets, the highest-selected Long Islander in the NHL draft since Eric Nystrom went 10th overall in 2002. He decided to forgo attending Boston College to play in the Ontario League that 2014-15 season, figuring it was a better path to the NHL.
He made the jump after that junior season with Plymouth but only got a couple cups of coffee with Columbus the next two seasons — years that were wildly different for the Blue Jackets, who started 2015-16 at 0-7-0 and changed coaches to Tortorella in that first month.
Milano won the AHL’s Calder Cup in 2016 with Cleveland, but needed to show Tortorella more last year. He’s done that this go-round.
“He’s had a great camp. We all know his skill,” Tortorella said. “But the most impressive thing for me is that he’s beginning to understand that it doesn’t always have to be a 20-foot saucer (pass) through three people. Sometimes it may just be a chip up the wall and I’ll fight another day. That’s been a great improvement in his game.
“And he’s beginning to understand you have to stop sometimes. He likes to roll, keep on moving as all players do. The game’s kind of gotten away from stopping and starting, but stopping and starting in our end zone is important for what we do. He’s learned that, too. That’s what’s going to get him the minutes with me, if he can do those things. And then he can take off with his skill and do whatever the hell he wants.”
Milano credited his summer spent at a familiar spot for Isles-watchers: Northwell Health Ice Center, where Milano trained with Jon DiFlorio at Institute 3E, the sports performance center in the Isles practice facility.
“It’s a beautiful place,” Milano said. “We didn’t have anything like that growing up . . . I really worked hard this summer to get stronger and I think it showed in camp.”
It showed on Friday, too. Milano didn’t invite any family out to Columbus for the opener, seeing as the team flew out immediately after the game to Chicago to face the Blackhawks on Saturday night. If he keeps impressing Tortorella, the Milano family will get plenty of chances to see Sonny this season.
“I told Sonny when he overpassed on one play, ‘You could score another one,’” Tortorella said. “There were some great teaching situations with him when he tried to do too much, but he had some great moments of simplifying. That’s where I am with him. I’m going to keep my thumb on him, keep making sure he makes simple plays and when the chances are there, he’s on his own.”