Jayson Megna was fresh off of one of the biggest decisions in his life when he came to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins training camp in September.
Months earlier, Megna chose to leave the University of Nebraska-Omaha after his freshman season to turn pro, signing a two-year deal with the Pittsburgh organization. Leaving college three years early was a big step, but when training camp rolled around it seemed like Megna's choice wasn't all that bad.
He impressed his coaches during practices and even more with his play in three preseason games, during which he led the Penguins with three goals. Then, three days before the start of the regular season Megna injured his ankle in practice and missed 14 of the team's first 15 games.
All at once, those high hopes that developed during the preseason were put on hold.
I had a good preseason and it was really frustrating to have the injury and go down, Megna said. It sets you back a bit.
For an undrafted rookie, missing the first month-and-a-half of the season can be devastating.
While Megna's teammates began to mesh together, learn each other's tendencies and the team's system during game situations, Megna spent his time rehabilitating. It was a critical time for the Penguins, who lost the first four games of the season before they eventually got on the same page and started winning.
Megna did return for a game on Nov. 4 but missed the next six contests as he continued to heal.
So while his teammates continued to bond on the ice, Megna had no choice but to watch.
It's a little tougher for him because he missed that initial 10-game segment that everyone else had, said head coach John Hynes. He missed that adjustment as a rookie.
Megna returned to action on Nov. 21 and while he has two goals in his last two games, the return hasn't been easy. He was held without a goal in his first six games back while managing three assists.
For the 22-year-old rookie, the difference between preseason games and those that count is drastically different. Throw in the fact that his teammates, as well as opponents, had all been playing for 15-20 games by the time he returned, Megna realized he had some catching up to do.
The one thing I noticed with everyone already having played around 20 games is they all know the systems, the details and where they're supposed to be on the ice, Megna said. In the preseason, guys are new and still trying to mesh, so people are out of place and making mistakes.
It was definitely tough coming into a season where everyone had already played a bunch of games together.
That's why Hynes said he and the coaching staff are taking a patient approach with Megna.
We've had more patience because of that adjustment for him, Hynes said. He's basically in his first 10-game segment and as he continues to feel more comfortable and understands what it takes to compete and produce offense at this level, that's what's going to ignite his offensive abilities.
Offensive ability is something that Megna has shown during his brief stint in college, where scored 13 goals and 31 points in 38 games last season for Omaha. Still, Megna isn't relying solely on his knack for offense to ease his return to the game. He's been spending his days going over video with assistant coach Alain Nasreddine and staying on the ice long after practice has ended to get more work in.
The hard work is helping, Megna said, adding that his ankle feels better and his conditioning is close to 100 percent.
And it doesn't hurt that he can finally see some evidence that his play is improving as the goals start to add up on the stat sheet.
I think that's a good indicator. Obviously there's nights you play well, get a bunch of shots and maybe it's your best game of the year and you don't have anything to show for it, Megna said. It's nice to get that first goal in there. Now, I don't have to grip the stick so tight. If you're scoring points you're doing something right.