Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the hop: Cole Sillinger is highly unlikely to be a Calder Trophy finalist this season, and this column isn’t trying to make the case otherwise.
Moritz Seider has been incredible for the Detroit Red Wings, as has Lucas Raymond. Tack on Trevor Zegras and his highlight-reel goals (even though he brings so much more to the table than that) and it’s been a while since we’ve seen a crop of rookies that has been this impactful.
Despite Sillinger falling out of the running to land in the top three, he still deserves to be a part of the best rookies in the NHL conversation. If 2021-22 didn’t feature a trio of players who were skating at ridiculously high levels, odds are good that the Columbus Blue Jackets forward would end up in the final trio of the year’s best freshman.
That’s because what Sillinger has managed to accomplish as an 18-year-old is nothing short of incredible, and Blue Jackets fans should be stoked about what he’ll bring to the organization for the rest of this season and beyond. He’s the youngest player in the league, yet head coach Brad Larsen hasn’t shied away from leaning on the center.
The bench boss recently spoke to Grace Weidenhamer of NHL.com about how Sillinger has managed to earn the staff’s trust despite being such a young professional player:
"“He’s slowly finding his way through this league. This is a tough league at center at 18 years old. He has the right mind-set. He really has a feel for when the games start to ramp up. His competitiveness and intensity starts to get better. That’s what I love about him. He’s always engaged that way. He senses those moments.”"
You can teach a player how to have a more fluid skating stride. How to find the soft areas of the ice during an offensive zone possession. You can even teach a player how to fight—just ask Blue Jackets defenseman, Andrew Peeke. One thing you simply can not teach, however, is killer instinct.
It’s a trait that separates the great from the good; the franchise legends from the answers to trivia questions at your local pub. That innate ability to rise to the occasion and not only embrace the opportunity but thrive.
We can’t read minds here at Union and Blue, but we suspect that part of the reason Sillinger was able to make this club in the first place was that ability to read the moment and elevate. Columbus is short on centers, there’s no arguing that. But it would make no sense for them to burn a year off of the 2021 12th-overall draft pick’s entry-level deal if he wasn’t making an impact out on the ice.
Sillinger isn’t scoring at the same rate as a Zegras. His 0.35 points per game rank 12th among all rookie forwards who’ve appeared in at least 25 games this season, according to StatHead. Yet the fact that he’s doing this all at the age of 18 can’t be stressed enough.
Raymond is almost 20. Zegras is closing in on his 21st birthday. It can’t be overstated just how much development can take place across two years at the NHL level either. Just how much will Sillinger have improved once he’s the same age as these two likely Calder Trophy finalists? With his competitive drive, both on and off the ice, it’s not hyperbolic to state that the sky is the limit for the Columbus native.
He’s already producing at a passable middle-six level in all three zones. Over at The Athletic, Shayna Goldman and Dom Luszczyszyn have been making player cards to help illustrate where a player fits in against his peers. Sillinger was projected to be a slight drag against Columbus’ win total (minus-0.2 GSVA) but has played at a plus-0.2 level. It’s not out of the question to think that he could be a plus-one GSVA player in a year’s time, which would make him one of the most impactful skaters on the Blue Jackets roster. As a teenager.
The NHL is a tough, tough league to play center in. How often do we see a highly-touted pivot get broken in on the wing for a year or two before making the transition to the middle of the ice? Sure, generational talents like Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid make it look easy, but more often than not, pro teams don’t toss their rookies to the proverbial wolves as a top-six center.
Yet this is a role that Sillinger has earned during his first year in Columbus. Larsen isn’t the kind of head coach who will just play skaters to play them. Roles must be earned, and the youngster has done that and then some for the Blue Jackets.
As the team continues to rebuild (reload?) and transition, Sillinger just might be the most important part of that effort. It’s unclear just what the team plans to do with Patrik Laine, and the likes of Kent Johnson are at least a year, maybe two, away.
By the time the Olympics standout arrives, odds seem good that Sillinger will be fully established as a top-six center. It’s not out of the question to expect him to elevate his points-per-game clip to 0.5 in 2022-23, and who knows just how far he’ll be able to go from there.
That’s in the future, though. For now, we just wanted to give the hometown rookie some love because the national media hasn’t really been doing so. Again, there’s virtually no chance that he ends up as a Calder Trophy finalist, but that doesn’t mean that the Blue Jackets don’t have an unquestionable pillar at center in Sillinger.