Photo Credit: Robert Murray / WHL
I can’t imagine that Cole Sillinger ever expected his draft year to play out the way that it has. The former 11th overall pick in the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft and son of former NHLer Mike Sillinger certainly expected to play the most important season of his junior career with the Medicine Hat Tigers, especially after his incredible rookie season where he accrued 53 points in just 48 games played (1.10 ppg). Sillinger was on fire last year, constantly showing signs of improvement as the season progressed until an unfortunate UBI caused him to miss four weeks of play. Despite the missed time, he came back from injury without missing a beat and went right back to his upwards trajectory of getting better with every game. Just as he was really starting to put it all together, the WHL season came to an abrupt end due to the COVID19 pandemic and Sillinger’s impressive rookie season had come to a close.
Fast forward to 2021. The WHL, as well as the OHL, have still yet to announce their plans for the 2020-21 season leaving all of their prospects in limbo. Do draft eligibles wait around, hoping that their respective leagues figure out a plan for them to get back on the ice? Or do they look elsewhere, hoping to transfer to a league where they can get any sort of regular playing time in such a vital year in their careers? Cole Sillinger made the decision to play elsewhere, and now he’s begun playing his draft year in a league he never expected to, for a team he never expected to play on: the Sioux Falls Stampede of the United States Hockey League. The transfer was completed on January 13th 2021 and, at the time of writing this article, Sillinger is nearly maintaining a goal per game pace with 7 goals and 12 points in his first 8 games.
D.O.B – May 16, 2003
Nationality – Canada
Draft Eligibility – 2021
Weight –187 lbs
Position – Center
Handedness – Left
Sillinger’s Style of Play
Like most junior hockey superstars Cole Sillinger is a player who wants to score goals and see that lamp light up. He has the means to do so as well, as he boasts a quick release that generates a ton of velocity with very little sacrifice in accuracy. He exhibits great placement of the puck and can hit small gaps from nearly anywhere on the ice. His shooting arsenal isn’t limited by any means as he can easily beat goalies with a snap shot, a wrist shot or a one timer. He demonstrates deception by combining numerous body fakes, look offs and skill moves to create his ideal shooting lanes. In addition, he hides his shot well, masking his intentions until the very last moment where he can open/close the blade and change the angle with a subtle weight shift, all during his very brief shooting motion. He loves shooting the puck mid drag, simultaneously threatening both a pass and a shot so that the goalie can’t fully commit to the shot. While his shot is dangerous in many ways, what really elevates Cole’s game to the next level is his propensity to hunt for medium/high danger chances over low danger shots. You won’t often see Cole blindly firing pucks from awkward angles along the perimeter or from far away at the point. Instead, you’ll see Cole advance into medium/high danger areas with the puck, often using well timed cuts, crafty footwork and a wealth of skill moves to get by his defender and fire a rocket on the net.
Sillinger is more than a pure goal scorer, he’s also proven to be a dangerous passer in all areas of the ice. He doesn’t just mindlessly give the puck away when he can’t find a shooting lane, he times his passes so that they’re often received in stride surrounded by an open pocket of space. He understands the value of drawing in defenders before passing the puck to a teammate in order to create more space around the ice. While not overly physical, he doesn’t shy away from contact in order to make the best play available. I’d go as far as to say he even has some chippiness in his game. He can maintain puck control through contact, and tries to gain body position so that he has leverage in his physical encounters to push off stronger opponents. Just like with his shooting habits, Sillinger’s priority when passing is to find a teammate in medium/high danger areas and get them the puck. He doesn’t try to force the pass if the lane doesn’t exist and will often cutback and reset looking for the next play to make. He has an eye for tight, narrow lanes that only exist for a few moments and can seamlessly thread passes that are easily controlled by the recipient. His passing is not limited to just forehand moves as Sillinger has shown he can still move the puck through the lanes on his backhand. He could stand to do this more, it never hurts to make the defence respect one more weapon.
Whether it’s with the puck on his stick or he’s following his team into the zone, Sillinger is a very active player in transition, When he has the puck you can expect Cole to use crossovers to quickly change his routes as he attacks the zone, often blending his footwork with other manipulative techniques such as look offs and hesitation moves to make his opposition indecisive as he enters the zone. When away from the puck he picks his routes carefully, trying to cross the opposing blue line in a spot where he can support his teammate. He’s effective in give and go situations, often demonstrating that he understands how to utilize his teammates close to him to maintain controlled possession in zone entries. He tends to draw defenders into him, faking an attack to the outside lane before quickly cutting towards the middle and gaining the zone from there. Sillinger can identify when his teammate will enter the zone with little resistance and create a cross ice lane to get him the puck. He’s not perfect in transition, as he sometimes gains the zone with the intention of taking the outside lane and blowing by his defender without the top line speed to actually do so. Other times you may find Sillinger attack the zone and find himself driving right into pressure with no way out other than to dump the puck or surrender possession to the opposition. While this is concerning, it’s possible this method of attack could be a legitimate weapon if he can improve his top speed. Even if he can’t, Sillinger has already demonstrated that he doesn’t rely on one method of attacking the zone so it isn’t unreasonable to expect more refinement in his decision making in regards to transition.
When a player is very clearly the best player on the ice with every shift they take, you may find that their effort level decreases when the puck isn’t on their stick. Some players never develop good off puck habits to support their teammates when they aren’t the ones driving the bus. They tend to not move their feet much and float around, or they don’t put in effort when chasing the puck outside of their reach. These players tend to have a hard time when transitioning to higher level hockey as understanding how, when, and where to move away from the puck is a necessity in order to be an effective player in all 3 zones of the ice. Thankfully, despite being the best player every time he steps on the ice, Sillinger continues to demonstrate quality off puck movement. He races on retrievals, forcing defenders to go at 100% to stop Cole from sneaking by them and grabbing the puck behind the net. When the puck is wedged under multiple bodies fighting along the boards, Sillinger tends to sneakily wait around until the perfect time to come in and steal the puck. He’s always trying to be an open outlet option for teammates under pressure. When his teammates gain the zone, Sillinger times his movements into open lanes so he can either fire the puck without breaking stride or quickly identify a teammate in a dangerous opportunity and move the puck onto their stick. He shows no difficulty making plays in motion but can also enter a glide and make plays w/ the game slowed down. Sillinger plays with a high pace, something that projects well considering how fast the game is played at the NHL level.
Sillinger employs his off puck play to be a capable defender too. In the neutral zone, he positions himself to be able to retrieve loose pucks or steal a puck that’s been knocked away from the other team. He trails attackers as they attack the zone and uses his stick to interrupt the play if the opposition slows down or forgets about him. He uses his stick intelligently when defending against transition, often breaking down plays that come within his vicinity. He could stand to gamble less on his reads in transition and make smarter, efficient plays more often. He has shown the capacity to make these higher IQ reads so the potential for further development is there. He plays a safer game in the defensive zone. He still occasionally misreads and over commits on certain plays (especially on the penalty kill, he shouldn’t be out there at 5v4) but again, he’s shown repeatedly that he is capable of being a valuable contributor defensively so it’s possible for consistency to be developed here with more experience. Like in the offensive zone, he can position himself accordingly so that he’s an open outlet for when possession is regained. He’s also capable of discerning when to jump into a scrum and try to steal the puck. While his effort in the defensive zone isn’t as consistent as his effort in the offensive zone, there’s no denying that he understands how to be a competent defender and what his role is. You can often catch him scanning around the defensive zone, keeping track of where the opposition is. He’s showing flashes of knowing when to pressure forecheckers, when to retreat back towards the blue line, when to come low to support his defence and when to get his stick/body in passing lanes to shut them down or intercept the puck. I’ve yet to see many shifts where he displays all these attributes in succession but the individual skills are there and, with the right development, could come together to be a good supporting defensive winger at the NHL level.
One could argue that the biggest question mark for Cole Sillinger is his skating. There’s notable improvement between the WHL shut down and his arrival in the USHL but it’s still among his weaker attributes. He could stand to improve his two step acceleration as being able to consistently gain separation from his opponents from a stopped position would make it much easier to attack pockets of space. As mentioned before, he does utilize crossovers when attacking laterally through the NZ to keep defenders moving their feet. He combines strong edgework with a lower center of gravity to shield the puck from bigger opposition, while also displaying sharp cuts and pivots to quickly slide through narrow gaps. His top speed is lackluster, but he has shown improvement between last year and now so there’s room to reasonably believe he’ll continue to improve. He needs to display better ankle flexion, moving his knees farther over his toes in order to maintain better skating form. It can help generate a stride that is more powerful with longer, deeper extensions thus providing improvements in both explosivity and top speed. With that being said, Sillinger makes up for his lack of elite skating with high level deception and manipulation. The modern day NHL is about creating space all over the ice through active off puck movement and while elite skating is a very valuable tool in doing so, it’s not a necessity. While skating is becoming more and more valuable with each draft that passes, it’s not a necessity if the player exhibits traits and skills that help them find space regardless. Sillinger does possess a wide variety of these traits and with further refinement in how each tool is used in conjunction with the rest of his toolkit, it’s easy to see how his elusive behaviours would translate to the NHL.
I really like Cole Sillinger. It took me a few games as I initially misread his off puck movement as “laziness” or “coasting”. There were some times he really frustrated me as there were opportunities to make high level plays that he passed up on for low probability 1 on 1 encounters. I was seeing the talent but was questionable on his decision making. The more I watched, the more I realized that he can actively contribute in all three zones. Upon rewatching the first few games where I had come away unimpressed, I realized even in these games how his off puck movement and desire to attack open space were creating chances over the ice. He’s certainly too good for the USHL and would benefit from playing against better opposition for the sake of his development. All in all, in a draft that severely lacks high octane, dynamic offensive talents Cole Sillinger stands out as one of the top forwards and should certainly be ranked in the lottery for the 2021 NHL draft.
Mark Scheifele, Center, Winnipeg Jets
Being one of the more unique players in the draft, Cole Sillinger tends to remind of Mark Scheifele. Both players had questionable skating at the time of their draft but made up through it with deception, a tendency to hunt for open space, strong off puck play and an eye for narrow passing lanes.
Middle six forward, likely winger with 20 goal potential and 30 goal upside.
stats from InStat and EliteProspects
Prospect report written by Sam McGilligan. If you would like to follow Sam on Twitter, his handle is @Sam_McGilligan.
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