After the 2020-21 season was already delayed a few months, the last thing Sam Miletic wanted to do was wait even longer to play.
But with the forward recovering from a bout of mononucleosis – and having lost a fair amount of weight and energy along the way – head coach J.D. Forrest and the Penguins staff didn’t want to put the 23-year-old in a compromising situation.
“He was begging,” Forrest said of Miletic. “He wanted to be in as soon as possible. Everyone’s been waiting so long for this season to start, him included.
So as soon as the opportunity was there, he wanted to play.
“But once we gave him the plan and said, ‘Hey, here’s the day; this is our goal (for him to return),’ then he just kind of put his head down and did the work to be ready, and that was evident in the game.”
That game was a 5-4 overtime win over Lehigh Valley on Feb. 27, in which Miletic scored a go-ahead third period goal and added an assist. It was a promising start for the Michigan native, who is in his third professional season with the Pittsburgh organization and hoping for big things.
Although Miletic represented the Penguins at the AHL All-Star Classic last season, his goal and point totals fell despite playing in 13 more games than his rookie campaign. So, he used the extended offseason to his advantage and was on the ice as much as possible.
“Pretty much every day there really, since August or so,” Miletic said in a video call last week. “Just on the ice a lot, working on skills and different things. Just felt like that helped a lot. Came out and felt really comfortable.”
Miletic’s offensive potential has never been in doubt; he’s a former 37-goal scorer in the OHL, and Penguins coaches have raved about his hockey IQ and on-ice vision in the past. However, one of the things Forrest said the team is hopeful to see from him this year is simply more consistency.
While points don’t always tell the full story of how a player is performing, Miletic was very streaky with his production last season. He had one stretch with 13 points in 11 games through November and December, but also had only five points in his final 22 contests.
“We would just like for him to bring the best attributes of his game on a nightly basis,” Forrest said. “I think he could show some more speed this season, which would be good to add that on top of everything else he already brings to the table. Really smart, got a great shot. So, we’re just looking to build off that.”
Now with 113 AHL games on his resume, Miletic also came into this winter knowing he would have to take on more of a leadership role for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s first-year players – even if he’s about the same age or younger than they are.
“Just being there for everyone else and trying to be a good teammate,” he said. “It’s definitely a different look, a lot of new faces, but they’re all great guys and great teammates. So, it’s a fun group to be a part of so far.”
As for his health, Miletic said he felt fine against Lehigh Valley and just needed a few shifts to knock off some rust. It’s the Penguins’ second high-profile case of mono in as many seasons, with defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph also overcoming a bout with the disease as a rookie.
Joseph, of course, rebounded and became one of the team’s top defensemen and most promising NHL prospects in the following months. Time will tell if Miletic can forge on in a similar manner and make himself a candidate for a taxi squad assignment or to play his first career game at the next level.
It would certainly make the extra wait worth it.
“We didn’t really know when the season was going to start this year, and then to kind of get delayed a little more was frustrating,” Miletic said. “Definitely was really happy to get back and be out there.”
Tyler Piccotti has covered the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins for Times-Shamrock newspapers since 2017. In the Penguins Insider blog, he provides a look at NEPA’s only professional hockey team, sharing analysis and insights that go beyond the game sheet. A 2015 graduate of Syracuse University, he also has written for Bleacher Report, The Post-Standard and Lacrosse Magazine. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-821-2000; @CVPiccotti