After completely shattering expectations as an 18-year-old rookie in the NHL, Cole Sillinger has come back down to earth in his second season with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
He posted 16-15-31 (G-A-PTS) in 79 games with the club last season while averaging just 13:42. The recent draftee looked the part of a veteran, and it was all but assumed he would pick up where he left off. That's not what's happened, both for him and the team writ large. Sillinger has struggled this year, looking less confident with the puck, and playing in a lesser role, even with all of the mounting injuries. In last week's game against the Montreal Canadiens (the first of two), he played just 9:24. Through 20 games, he has just 2-3-5.
Confidence begets confidence, and the opposite holds true, too. After scoring a highlight reel goal in the season-opener, the goal was called back for offsides. He would need to wait another month (!), 14 games before scoring his first legitimate goal of the season. Had this goal counted, would Sillinger have gotten off to a better start?
COLE SILLINGER IS JUST SILLY— CBJ Center (@CBJcenter) October 13, 2022
Unfortunately this was ruled offsides.. pic.twitter.com/CoeJvturB0
So much of the game is mental. Sillinger, 19, is not immune to those forces. But he's started to turn a corner lately, playing alongside veteran Gus Nyquist and fellow up-and-comer Yegor Chinakhov. Sometimes, you need a bounce to go your way to kickstart your game.
Last week, our Will Chase wrote about the conflicting philosophies of allowing young players to work through their struggles and develop, while also wanting to shield them from difficult times. Someone like Sillinger could be sent to the AHL, but would more ice time at a lower league 'help' his confidence? Would playing in an elevated role in Columbus, where he's struggled this year, be good for his confidence? Does he feel the pressure that he must be the person to assume the position of 1C on a club that clearly lacks that position?
One unappealing conclusion is that Sillinger may have overachieved vs. expectations last year, both from an individual/team perspective and a sustainability standpoint. Per NaturalStatTrick, Sillinger GF% rate (the rate in which you were on the ice for your team's goals vs. all goals) was just 38.2% last year (5v5). This year, it's 38.46%. A more likely conclusion is that his shooting percentage has plummeted from 11.02% last year (5v5) to just 3.85% this year. That, plus a revolving door of linemates, and you have some upheaval. In an otherwise lost season, development is key. And while development is almost never linear, the Blue Jackets can hardly afford to squash the upward trajectory of its young players.
My sentiment is simple. We're at the quarter-season mark, and Sillinger has 75% of the games left to rediscover his game from last year - and even improve upon it. Sending him to the AHL would only further hurt his confidence. Playing him under 10 minutes per night is similarly allowing the problem to fester. So, too, is feeding him top-line minutes with someone like Johnny Gaudreau. Here, head coach Brad Larsen is right to allow him a regular shift with good players and let him rediscover what made him a solid middle-six player a year ago.