It's an agonizing decision for a lot of prospects: head to college and be the big man on campus, or sign with an NHL team and play a longer schedule in major junior. Last year, it was Montreal first-rounder Michael McCarron in the spotlight. He chose the Ontario League's London Knights over Western Michigan. This time, it's Columbus first-rounder Sonny Milano, who will join the OHL's Plymouth Whalers after he informed Boston College he would not be attending the school this fall.
As detailed by Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch, Milano struggled with the decision and that's not surprising.
During the season, Milano told me Boston College was his dream school and the Eagles, who lost the national championship semifinal to Union, would have looked very good again with the skilled left winger in the lineup. He would even be entering school alongside his linemate from the U.S. National Team Development Program, Alex Tuch (himself a Minnesota first-rounder).
But Milano felt the OHL was a better fit for him at this point and that's cool. He will play twice as many games in major junior than he would have in college and that pro-style routine is important for some.
In Plymouth, he is heading into an interesting situation. Longtime coach and GM Mike Vellucci, who had so much success with the Michigan squad, is gone – he's now part of the brass with the Carolina Hurricanes. But new GM Mark Craig is clearly up for the task.
On Friday, the Whalers officially acquired playmaking center Mathew Campagna from Sudbury in exchange for draft choices. That gives Milano, who played with Jack Eichel at the NTDP, a solid pivot to play with on the top line. The Whalers had an uncharacteristic down 2013-14, which I partially attribute to the fact they lost Tom Wilson and Connor Carrick to the NHL early and didn't get a full season from Chicago first-rounder Ryan Hartman. With those players gone (or hampered by injury), more pressure was put on draft-eligible kids such as Matt Mistele, Connor Chatham, Josh Wesley and Alex Peters.
The good news is all those players survived: Plymouth still made the playoffs and all four players were drafted. So they return intact, while OHL first-rounder William Bitten will help up front, too. And then of course there's returning star goalie Alex Nedeljkovic. The Carolina prospect can cover up a lot of mistakes, so the Whalers should be pretty decent now that Milano and Campagna are in the fold.
As for Boston College, this is a tough loss that the Eagles can probably live with. Jerry York's team is a perpetual motion machine and even though the Eagles lost the best line in college hockey over the summer when Johnny Gaudreau, Bill Arnold and Kevin Hayes all left, there's always talent coming in. Along with Tuch, Boston College welcomes Washington prospect Zach Sanford up front this fall, while generational talent Noah Hanifin will jump up to the blueline.
I've been talking to insiders about Hanifin lately and Eagles fans should be excited. The big, two-way defenseman will be the youngest Boston College player ever, but he might be even better than Seth Jones at the same age.
With Boston pick Ryan Fitzgerald and the dangerous Austin Cangelosi returning up front, the Eagles will be fine on offense and better on 'D,' with excellent Vancouver prospect Thatcher Demko returning in net.
And what does this all mean for Columbus?
It doesn't change a whole lot in the short-term, other than the fact that Milano will likely play in the Traverse City prospects tournament for the Jackets once he signs his entry-level deal. Should Milano tear up the OHL with Plymouth this season, there is the option of him spending 2015-16 in the American League, but that was available to him already, since he was drafted out of the American NTDP program and not the OHL.
Edited to reflect that Boston College lost to Union in the NCAA semifinal, not the final.