There's nothing quite like a demotion to increase confidence, right?
The Columbus Blue Jackets are caught between a rock and a hard place regarding second-year center Cole Sillinger, who has struggled mightily this season. One year after posting an impressive 16-15-31 in 79 games as an 18-year-old, the center has tallied just 2-5-7 in 38 games this season. His current goalless streak is 22 games.
On the one hand, it's almost unfair to single out Sillinger. Who on this team hasn't struggled this year? And while he's not shown the offensive confidence of a year ago, the injuries that have mounted and the consistently inconsistent linemates have to be difficult on a young player. That, and also the notion that development is almost never a linear proposition, and maybe this is much ado about nothing.
On the other hand, his lack of confidence is jarring after a season in which he looked to be, at worst, a strong third-line center with offensive upside. Heading into the season, expectations for Sillinger were high because we saw his abilities as an 18-year-old.
With the season half over, the Blue Jackets have a difficult decision to make. They can try to rehabilitate him in the NHL, where he's playing almost a full minute less (12:48) than he did a season ago (13:42). In Saturday's win over the Detroit Red Wings, Sillinger was made a healthy scratch, a painful indictment. I respect the coaching staff's decision to make him a scratch for this game, but it's not in the organization's - or player's - best interest for him to sit for long. If he's not up to snuff, the team must send him to AHL Cleveland, where he'd play a major role on a team that has been decimated by the Blue Jackets call-ups due to their own injuries.
It's good fortune that Sillinger is even eligible for such a demotion. If not for COVID-19 disrupting the WHL in 2020-21, Sillinger would have been drafted from that league, which is part of the CHL. The CHL has an agreement with the NHL that players under 20 cannot play in the AHL - NHL or juniors. But because of the pandemic, Sillinger played in the USHL for the Sioux Falls Stampede, and he was technically drafted as a USHL player that has no such restrictions.
The Blue Jackets surely did not want to get to this point, but the reality is that Sillinger looks like a shell of his former self. But is sending him to the AHL - a demotion, a significant pay cut, etc. - really going to instill confidence? It's not hard to imagine such a demotion having the exact opposite effect.
So now, with 40 games left, the Blue Jackets have the unenviable task of rehabilitating a player that seemed to be on an upward trajectory. In this lost season, it seems that when it rains, it pours. Sending Sillinger to the AHL, where his older brother, Owen, is also on the team, could be the right decision. But it could also have the paradoxical unintended consequence of further hurting his confidence. Who can say what the right call is, except that he should be playing hockey games and not watching long-term from the Nationwide Arena press box.