Mikey Milne is second WHL's scoring race with 15 goals in 21 games, two behind his Winnipeg Ice teammate Connor McClennon. He's also second in points with 32, four behind teammate Matt Savoie, and he tops the league with a plus-minus rating of +27.
All of which made this next sentence almost incomprehensible: The 19-year-old left-winger from Abbotsford, B.C., has not been drafted nor has he ever been asked to attend an NHL team's development camp.
What’s more — Milne has company. You can add Ice teammate Ben Zloty, a Calgary product who leads all WHL blue-liners with 24 points in 21 games, to the class of underappreciated pro prospects.
"I think some teams really missed the boat because I thought out of the (Regina) bubble (last spring), both of them deserved it," said Ice head coach James Patrick earlier this week. "I saw around the league a lot of (undrafted) players who got invited to (NHL) camps who were not as good as those two."
There can be extenuating circumstances. It is not uncommon for late bloomers to escape serious consideration at draft time and Milne, an explosive combination of speed, aggression and puck skills wrapped in a 5-11, 185-pound package, fits the bill.
As an eighth-round pick in the 2017 WHL Draft, he's accustomed to being an afterthought.
Milne played only 14 of Winnipeg's 24 games in the Regina hub last spring, slow to get started because he was rehabbing after off-season surgery to repair the labrum in his left shoulder. When he finally returned, he had six goals and 12 points in an abbreviated season. It wasn't enough to interest an NHL team but Milne never lost focus.
"When you get to the Western League you have five years to show yourself off and obviously I got the short end of the stick last year (with the injury) but just looking at this year I have 68 games to show myself and show our team and how good we are," he said. "And I didn't really get down on myself after the bantam draft. I went later as well. And usually you can count yourself out if you're a later pick, but I didn't really look at it that way."
In 2021-22, Milne has skated on a line with 17-year-old centre Conor Geekie and overage right-winger Jakin Smallwood and the results have been terrifying for opposition defences. They are a murderous in the transition game and are equally adept on the forecheck. The trio is finding scoring opportunities on almost every shift.
Entering Wednesday's action, Milne, Smallwood and Geekie were second, eighth and ninth, respectively, in league scoring.
Brad Rihela, one of his former coaches at Yale Hockey Academy, has been tracking Milne's progress at summer ice sessions in Chilliwack, B.C., and online since the start of the WHL season.
"He's just found a way to put everything together," said Rihela, who coached Milne's Yale U15 Prep team in 2016-17 and now serves as an associate coach for the BCHL's Chilliwack Chiefs. "He's gotten stronger. He's much more aggressive in puck battles. Even just watching him train in summer — his details are very strong. He's very focused.
"And the thing that jumps out about Mikey is he just loves the game. I've always seen that. So it's really impressive to me what he's been able to accomplish this year and I'm really happy for him because he was always pretty underrated player — even by myself. I didn't see this coming all those years ago."
To be fair, Milne was a mere 5-5 and 140 pounds and a third-line player in his WHL draft year. He doubled his point production from his 14- to 15-year-old seasons, becoming the best player on Yale's Elite 15s team. Typically, players with late birthdays are late bloomers and Milne's development path has reflected that.
In the off-season, Rihela has been impressed with Milne's smarts — he often asks incisive questions about the finer points of a drill or skill development.
"He's got a deeper understanding of the offensive side of the game and he's one of those players that almost makes you a better coach," said Rihela. "It kind of keeps you on your toes."
Patrick can relate, marvelling at how Milne sees and plays the game at top speed. "I know he sees some plays that aren't there," said Patrick.
Milne has a simple explanation for his rise to prominence.
"I think just as I've grown up, I've kind of grown into my body and kind of recognized my game and how to play," he said.
Zloty, meanwhile, been expanding his game ever since injury and illness sidelined first-pairing blue-liners Nolan Orzeck and Carson Lambos during the Regina hub last spring.
The Ice's sixth-round pick in 2017, Zloty posted good offensive numbers in the hub (17 points in 24 games) while also refining his defensive game. During exit interviews with the coaching staff, the off-season to-do list was succinct: Brush up on your shooting, get stronger and better in your own end.
"(They wanted me to) shoot pucks and work on my intensity in the D-zone and then just on my strength obviously, so I can pin guys and play dominant in the D-zone," said Zloty.
The 6-foot, 175-pounder's puck-handling, most notably his backhand outlet passes, has been getting special notice. An NHL scout recently sent Patrick video clips documenting the 19-year-old's uncanny ability to zip a backhand to the tape of a moving teammate on a breakout play — a backhanded compliment if you will.
"I work on my backhand a lot during the off-season," said the left-shot Zloty. "I'm trying to get it so my backhand is just as good as my forehand. So I play either side and make plays from wherever I am."
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The skill looks good but it isn't foolproof. In Saturday's 4-2 win in Medicine Hat, he dished a weak backhand dribbler up the middle that ended up on an opponent's stick. A moment later it was in the back of the Winnipeg net.
"He's got a good backhand pass but he way overuses it, if you ask me," said Patrick. "Sometimes the forehand is there. Just use the forehand."
Zloty, who needs only three more points to establish a career high, is firmly settled in on the ice and with his teammates.
"I don't think I've ever been on a team this type before," said Zloty. "I think all the guys have great relationships with every other guy. It's a pretty big joy coming to the rink every day and knowing some of your best buds are there."
Mike Sawatzky Reporter
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
Left-winger Connor McClennon scored his WHL-leading 16th and 17th goals of the season and centre Matt Savoie potted his 12th and added two assists to push his league-leading point total to 36 as the Ice romped to a 7-0 triumph over the Swift Current Broncos at Wayne Fleming Arena Wednesday night.
Jakin Smallwood, with his 11th, Skyler Bruce, with his eighth, Chase Bertholet, with his seventh, and Nolan Orzeck, with his third, also sniped for Winnipeg, which improved to 20-1-0-0 atop the East Division.
The Ice was playing without star defenceman Carson Lambos and left-winger Owen Pederson, who were both out with upper-body injuries.
Winnipeg connected on four of eight power-play opportunities.
Winnipeg goaltender Gage Alexander made 23 saves for his third career shutout.
Reid Dyck had 40 saves in the Broncos net, including a stop on Mikey Milne's second-period penalty shot. Swift Current fell to 6-11-2-1.
Next up for the Ice is a Saturday matchup with the visiting Medicine Hat Tigers.