At the beginning of training camp, Columbus Blue Jackets rookie Cole Sillinger made headlines when he was centering the presumptive first line between Jakub Voracek and Patrik Laine.
As soon as that happened, the conversation surrounding the 18-year old turned quickly from 'could Sillinger make the opening night roster?' to 'oh my goodness, it sure seems like Sillinger is going to make the opening night roster'. On Sunday, the Blue Jackets announced an NHL-heavy roster for their game on Monday night against the Buffalo Sabres. At practice, Sillinger skated with Gus Nyquist and Oliver Bjorkstrand, a clear indication that he's being given every opportunity to make the team in a key role, either on the top line or the second line.
#CBJ head coach Brad Larsen: You might have some guys that are shocked on opening night. We have some kids that are pushing. I think everybody sees it. Guys will get rewarded if theyre playing well.— Jeff Svoboda (@JacketsInsider) October 3, 2021
This article isn't to discuss the merits of whether Sillinger should start the year in the NHL or the AHL, as it appears it's all but a formality that the youngster will open the year with the big club. And now that it seems inevitable, here are a few thoughts on how the Blue Jackets should - and shouldn't - handle their recent 12th overall pick.
When Pierre-Luc Dubois, who was selected 3rd overall, made his NHL debut, it was in a fourth-line capacity. More to the point, he played fourth line left-wing, a far cry from the top-line center he was drafted to become (and eventually became). That's because it is not common for 18-year-olds to crack NHL lineups. But when they do, it's typically the 'can't miss', first-overall pick type of player that does so. In GM Jarmo Kekalainen's career in the front office with the St. Louis Blues and with the Blue Jackets, only David Perron has gone from drafted in the summer to NHL lineup that very fall.
Last season, only four players taken in the 2020 NHL Draft ended up playing games, and they were taken first (Alexis Lafreniere), second (Quinton Byfield), third (Tim Stutzle), and sixth (Jamie Drysdale) overall. Some trivia - the last 18-year old to crack the Blue Jackets' lineup? Nikita Filatov, per quanthockey.
That Sillinger could even make the Blue Jackets may be more a commentary on the state of the lineup than his talent, undeniable as it may be. Most NHL franchises would stash a prized (but not elite) prospect in the AHL and feel great about it. But, again, Sillinger has impressed so much that it's likely a moot point. That's fine, but one item that gives me pause is where he could end up in the lineup. If it becomes clear that a top-six center role is too rich for him, the worst thing the organization could do is keep him in an NHL lineup at a diminished role.
Balancing patience with action could be a challenging tightrope to walk. On the one hand, the club should anticipate that he'll have some difficult nights in the NHL. But allowing him to work through these struggles and not pin him to the bench will be paramount. And if a few bad nights turns into a few bad weeks, the organization needs to have his long-term development in mind. I subscribe to the iron sharpens iron ethos, but only to a point. Sending him to the AHL, where he would presumably have a large role, shouldn't be treated as a demotion. Most 18-year olds would be in over their heads playing in that league, much less the NHL.
Of course, that too could be moot. Perhaps Sillinger is as NHL ready as he's appeared since he came to Columbus before training camp ever began. To say he's ahead of schedule is an understatement. When the Blue Jackets drafted him and Kent Johnson with their top two picks this offseason, the hope was that the club had drafted their top two centers of the future. And the future may be closer than we thought.