High Risk, No Reward: Why Cole Sillinger Playing in the NHL This Season is a Terrible Idea

Desperate times don’t have to require desperate measures. And the times aren’t even all that desperate.

On Sunday, Cole Sillinger officially became the first 18 year old Blue Jacket to make the opening night roster under General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen. The Columbus native was taken by his hometown team 12th overall in the 2021 draft, and has convinced the coaching staff over the past 10 weeks to grant him a spot among the 23 players to be paid the big bucks starting Thursday, likely playing with Boone Jenner and Max Domi. The hype for the local kid is starting to build.

And I want to pump the brakes on it, at least for a second. This is very likely to go very, very wrong.

This is the Columbus Blue Jackets we’re talking about. We have a... storied?... history of rushing prospects and forcing kids into the NHL who aren’t ready yet. There’s a significant chance that Sillinger joins the ranks of Brule, Picard, and Milano, and I would very much like that to not happen. I’m breaking this into two arguments: 1) Club precedent shows it’s too early for Cole Sillinger, and 2) we don’t need him on the roster right now.

Club Precedent: Analyzing picks 6-19 in CBJ History

Why picks 6-19, you might ask? No reason in particular. It helps that, aside from Sillinger, all but one prospect in this range was drafted in 2015 or before, meaning that 90% of these guys have had enough time to marinate and analyze. And it doesn’t help that the Jackets have only had one other pick in between nine and 15 in franchise history. Also, removing Sillinger and goaltender Pascal Leclaire leaves 10 skaters in our sample, which seems like a reasonable number. We can divide those skaters into successful and unsuccessful players.

The four “successful” players are Derick Brassard (6th overall 2006, 503 points in 905 games), Jakub Voracek (7th overall 2007, 738 in 968), Alexander Wennberg (14th overall 2013, 230 in 471) and Zach Werenski (8th overall in 2015, 189 in 335). Of these, Voracek, Wennberg and Werenski waited a full season before being full-time NHLers. Brassard only had 17 games experience before joining the CBJ full-time in 2008-09, two seasons after his draft year. These are the standard examples of the standard timeline for a prospect of Sillinger’s level. All four waited at least a year. And all four went on to at least have fruitful NHL careers. Werenski and Voracek not only became bona fide stars, but will also be joining Sillinger for the 2021-22 campaign.

However, note that all four players took a gap year to further their development. In fact, the only Blue Jackets prospects to not return to the minors, AHL, or Europe before playing in the NHL, prior to Sillinger, were Rick Nash and Gilbert Brule. 2003 4th overall pick Nikolay Zherdev did join the CBJ midway through the 2003-04 season after defecting from Russia, but arguably would’ve been better off staying overseas until the end of the lockout. Zherdev only played in 4.5 seasons in the NHL (netting 99 goals and 239 points) before returning to the KHL, failed comeback attempt with the Flyers notwithstanding.

That leaves the “unsuccessful” prospects. While some of these are likely just straight up misses by the scouting department, many are the victims of an expansion team desperate for something resembling talent, or a tweener franchise trying to find a center for their star winger.

Let’s start with a pair of left wings who got a cup of tea each in the NHL: Nikita Filatov and Alex Picard. Selected 8th overall in 2004, Picard was forced to develop another year due to the lockout, followed by 45 games with the Syracuse Crunch in 2005-06, before joining the no good very bad Blue Jackets for 17 games. No points. Back to the AHL before returning for 23 games in 2006-07. One (1) assist. After collecting enough miles going between the two leagues that he began worrying the extended warranty on his car was about to expire, Brule went off to Switzerland so the he could be in Switzerland instead of Norfolk, Virginia. Grand total: Eight seasons, 67 NHL games, two assists. Four years later, now with double the drafting expertise, the Blue Jackets selected Nikita Filatov 6th overall. Similar to Picard before him, he would bounce between Syracuse, Columbus, and Moscow for the next three seasons before being traded to Ottawa. Grand total of 6-7-13 in 44 games. In Ottawa he only played 9 games before returning to Russia on a more permanent basis. Both of these are likely more of a miss by the scouting staff than a rushed development by the coaching staff.

Aforementioned center Gilbert Brule had the most illustrious career, if that term applies here. The 2005 6th overall pick has a 43-52-95 stat line in 299 career NHL games, half of which with Columbus, over eight seasons. He made the team out of camp in 2005, got injured in his second game, then got injured again in November. Over three years, he tallied 32 points while bouncing between the fourth line, the press box, the IR, and the minors, before being traded to his hometown Edmonton Oilers to continue an injury-riddled career. This proves the first danger to Cole Sillinger: injuries. The physicality of the pros is a different beast compared to the WHL or USHL, and Sillinger is listed at 6 foot flat and 197 pounds. Would Brule have become a star in the NHL if not for those two leg injuries? Is giving Sillinger another year to bulk up in his best long-term interest? Probably.

Finally, we close with a trio of late-round picks that were likely rushed to the NHL. Liam Foudy is the most recent of the three selections, having just missed the cut for the NHL roster this year, after bouncing between Columbus and Cleveland last year. He impressed in his emergency debut during the 2019-20 season, a year and a half after he was taken 18th overall in the 2018 Draft. He continues to show promise, and showed hints of chemistry with Alexander Texier in the bubble, but only has a 1-6-7 stat line to show for it in 36 games. A bit too early to tell, probably needs a bit more time to develop. (Imagine Sillinger and Foudy playing together on Cleveland’s top line. That’d be really fun, and a great way for Cole to get used to the pro game.)  Four years prior, Sonny Milano, who has never been discussed or debated on this website before, took a similar path. Taken 16th overall in 2014’s draft, Milano made his debut late in March 2016, netting one assist in three games to close the season, before spending the next four seasons travelling I-71. He was traded to Anaheim at the 2020 deadline, leaving his career stats as a Blue Jacket at 20-22-42 in 116 games. Rychel made his debut during the injury-plagued 2014-15 season, again a year and a half after being drafted 19th overall in 2013. Second of three Columbus picks from this class, he recorded two goals and 12 points in 37 games before demanding a trade and leaving. He’s only played in six NHL games since, and was later released by both the KHL’s HC Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk and AHL’s Charlotte Checkers in the same season, both after less than ten games.

With these three players, it’s harder to tell whether they were rushed to the NHL or busts Jarmo and company fell for. Once you get a bit after Sillinger’s 12 spot, the draft becomes much less of a sure thing. However, I feel it’s safe to assume more development of these guys takes longer than one would need earlier in the first round, perhaps starting to break in to the league around 2 seasons after they were drafted. Cole Sillinger is not getting that. Even the best results the Blue Jackets have gotten in this range, three of the four taken several picks before him, were all given at least a full season before making their NHL debuts. Cole Sillinger is not getting that. Sillinger’s closest comparable, in terms of development timeline, is Gilbert Brule, the guy who got injured in his second game and never recovered. The Columbus Blue Jackets cannot let Cole Sillinger follow that path. The only reason why the 2005 Blue Jackets used Brule was because their best center was Jan Hrdina. Which leads me to my next point.

We Don’t Need Cole Sillinger Yet

We don’t. Period. Those 2005 Jackets were truly desperate for centers, and desperate times call for desperate measures. The 2021 Jackets are not desperate for centers. We have Jack Roslovic and Max Domi to center the top two lines. Should Jack Roslovic be a top-line center in the NHL? No, probably not, but if we want Cole Sillinger to develop into a top-line center in the NHL, he needs time to marinate. Yes, he has impressed in camp. He is likely one of our top four centers right now. But this team has a lot of centers. We need a true 1C. And Sillinger is our best shot at that, a shot we cannot risk on season where contending for the playoffs is a long shot at best.

So, what do we do in the meantime? Sillinger needs a year or so to develop, someone has to play center during that year. Well lucky for us, a conveniently-no-longer-injured Max Domi arrived to training camp earlier than expected! That (should) pretty much lock down our top 6 of Laine-Roslovic-Voracek and Nyquist-Domi-BJORKSTRAND.

Sean Kuraly was explicitly signed to slot in at the 4C. That just leaves four wings and the 3C to find players for. Veteran and potential newly-minted captain Boone Jenner complements young guns Yegor Chinakhov and Emil Bemstrom for three of our wing positions. Alexander Texier is a lock, as well, though whether or not he can play down the middle remains to be seen. That leaves Eric Robinson, Kevin Stenlund, and Gregory Hofmann to battle for one final spot. I honestly haven’t been blown away by Hofmann, and he’s about to turn 29, so I’m fine with him sitting as the 14th forward.

That gives us two options for the bottom six, depending on whether or not Texier can be trusted at 3C. Even if so, I’d still like for Boone Jenner to pair with him for defensive draws and as a general security blanket. So how about Jenner-Texier-Chinakhov and Robinson-Kuraly-Bemstrom to round out the forward group? If it turns out Texier isn’t as reliable as thought at center, than sub in Stenlund for Robinson and roll Texier-Stenlund-Chinakhov and Jenner-Kuraly-Bemstrom. Both very solid options, and neither risk the long term development of an important prospect.

Cole Sillinger may have convinced Brad Larsen and Jarmo Kekalainen that he’s NHL ready, but that was by playing in Traverse City and in the preseason. The regular season is a different beast, a beast that will likely hinder Sillinger in his development. Whether by injury, mental intimidation, or other means, it’s likely in the best interest of both Sillinger and the CBJ to give the rookie a bit more time in Medicine Hat or Cleveland rather than rush him in and keep guys who are NHL ready on the outside. The Cole Sillinger hype is real. And the payoff can be all the greater if we’re patient.

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