There are many fine details to the game of hockey, particularly at the NHL level.
A missed assignment of an offensive zone faceoff can lead to an odd-man rush the other way. A forward leaving the defensive zone just a second too early could ruin an otherwise well-executed breakout. Even small things, like the angle of a player’s skates or the way a penalty killer holds his stick in a passing lane, can make a big difference.
But when it comes down to it, sometimes you just want to see a guy fire the puck into the net.
Is that too much to ask?
That detail of hockey — scoring goals — can often be the most difficult. Sometimes, it seems downright impossible for your team to score. As a result, it’s justifiable to go into the NHL Entry Draft looking for a player that makes scoring goals look easy. Someone who can seemingly score from anywhere and makes goaltenders look like swiss cheese.
Someone like Cole Sillinger.
If you want the puck to go into the net, you want Cole Sillinger.
While Sillinger was generally ranked just outside the top ten by most experts, there are people who see him as a top-ten pick. Notably, Sam Cosentino at Sportsnet has him at 10th overall, while Scott Wheeler at The Athletic is slightly higher on Sillinger, ranking him ninth overall, right where the Canucks are picking.
Is that ranking justified? Should the Canucks take Sillinger with the ninth overall pick?
Cole Sillinger by the numbers
Sillinger is a 6’0”, 201 lbs centre who played for the Sioux Falls Stampede in the USHL last season. Before that, however, he had a bonkers season in the WHL for the Medicine Hat Tigers.
As a 16-year-old rookie in the WHL, Sillinger put up 22 goals and 53 points in 48 games. That’s pretty much unheard of. Other players, such as Nolan Patrick and Kailer Yamamoto in 2015-16, have put up better seasons than Sillinger’s 1.10 points per game the year before their draft year, but they were 17 at the time.
Sillinger’s 1.10 points per game is the best by a 16-year-old in the WHL in 25 years.
Unfortunately, he didn’t get a chance to improve upon that season in the WHL as the delay in starting the WHL season sent Sillinger looking for another league in which to play. He landed in the USHL, where he still put up some stunning numbers.
Sillinger had 24 goals and 46 points in 31 games, good for third among first-time draft-eligible players in the USHL. That was especially impressive given the team he was on — the Stampede were one of the worst teams in the USHL before he arrived. Despite playing around 20 fewer games than most of his teammates, he still led the Stampede in goals and points.
“He came into the league and was big-time,” said one scout to The Hockey News. “He single-handedly put Sioux Falls back into the playoff picture.”
Sillinger’s 1.48 points per game is the 15th best points per game from a first-time draft-eligible forward in the USHL since 2000. Some of the luminaries ahead of him on that list include Thomas Vanek, Clayton Keller, Alex Turcotte, and Jack Hughes.
The players closer to Sillinger’s 1.48 points per game include Anaheim Ducks top prospect Trevor Zegras (1.48), Joel Farabee (1.54), who just had 20 goals in 55 games for the Philadelphia Flyers, and Cole Caufield (1.46), who was a star for the Montreal Canadiens in their run to the Stanley Cup Final.
In other words, Sillinger is in some mighty fine company. By way of comparison, Brock Boeser had 35 goals and 68 points in 57 USHL games in his draft year, giving him 1.19 points per game.
In fact, Sillinger is somewhat reminiscent of Boeser in a few ways, particularly when it comes to his best attribute: his shot.
“You won’t find a better shot.”
Sillinger is, first-and-foremost, a goal scorer. He can put the puck in the net in multiple different ways, whether with a quick release off the rush, corralling a rebound and putting it under the bar, snapping a one-timer no matter where the pass is situated, or ripping a wrist shot from distance.
“You won’t find a better shot in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft than the one Cole Sillinger used to wreak havoc on the USHL last season,” said Elite Prospect’s Mitch Brown. “Name a type of shot and you’re going to find it in Sillinger’s arsenal.”
“His wrist shot release is especially potent, with a short draw, feet pointed at the net, adequate knee-bend, a hip-snap, his leg kicked back, and exploding from his chest,” reads his profile for Elite Prospects’ Draft Guide. “It’s a sight to behold.”
In fact, Sillinger’s shot is so good that he sometimes leans on it too much. He has a tendency to shoot from everywhere, seeming to believe that he can score from any spot on the ice. That led to a lot of low-percentage shots but, at the same time, he’s not entirely wrong to believe that because his shot really is good enough to beat goaltenders from distance.
When I say that he shoots from everywhere, I don’t just mean low-percentage shots either. He gets a lot of scoring chances too and he gets to dangerous areas of the ice on a regular basis.
“Sillinger makes the best of this shot with some stellar off of the puck instincts, an often overpowering wall game, and a penchant for driving the centre lane of the offensive zone,” said Brown.
In other words, it’s not just the shot, but Sillinger’s ability to find space to use it. Whether he’s driving to the net off the rush or the cycle, finding soft spots in defensive coverage away from the puck, or stickhandling around defenders, he’s able to get open ice and let his shot do the rest.
That isn’t easy to do and those goalscorer’s instincts are hard to find. To go with it, Sillinger has two other key components to his game that help him put the puck in the net: physicality and an excellent transition game.
Physical edge and transitioning up ice
Sillinger’s ability to win puck battles along the boards and protect the puck against bigger defenceman sets him apart from some other snipers in this draft.
“He’s six-feet but he’s jacked,” said a scout to The Hockey News. “He’s a strong, powerful guy. And he’s got some bite, he’s not just a scorer.”
While Sillinger isn’t the best skater, he’s strong and well-balanced. Beyond that mechanical aspect, he just plain seems to enjoy the physical aspect of the game and never shies away from hits or battles. He gets in on the forecheck and outmuscles and outworks defencemen to win the puck.
“It often seems as if Sillinger relishes physical contact,” said Brown. “He’ll throw reverse hits. He’ll mix it up after the whistle. He’ll throw the body on the forecheck. Any excuse to engage the opposition physically is good enough for Sillinger.”
Sillinger combines his physical strength with some excellent hands, making it tough for defenders to get the puck off him.
“His biggest asset is that he’s got some of the best hands in the draft and he’s strong over pucks,” said Wheeler. “So he can beat defenders one-on-one without ever getting touched and then when they do bump him, he’s able to shed past and maintain control too.”
That speaks to the other key ability that helps him score goals: getting the puck into the offensive zone. Despite some flaws in his skating, Sillinger is excellent at transitioning the puck up ice with control. He may not have a high-end top speed, but he can vary his pace and use his agility to change directions, creating openings for him to move the puck through the neutral zone.
There are just two main issues: he doesn’t do enough to get that puck in the first place and warts start to appear when he’s trying to move the puck instead of moving with it.
Flaws in defence and distribution
Sillinger looked like a pretty good playmaker as 16-year-old in the WHL. This past season, however, his passes missed the mark more often than not. As a result, he tended to turn the puck over in transition when he wasn’t skating the puck up ice but instead passing it.
In the offensive zone, Sillinger seemed to have a one-track mind, focussing primarily on shooting the puck and looking off opportunities to pass the puck. When he did pass it, he frequently missed the mark.
“Sillinger’s regression as a playmaker this season was a bit concerning for our staff. Where he once showed real promise as a distributor only a season prior with the Tigers, Sillinger looked like a bit of a one-trick pony for the Stampede,” said his profile for Elite Prospects. “It’s not just that Sillinger wasn’t finding his teammates through layers. Even on the rare occasion that he tried to create through his linemates, Sillinger would sail passes well off-target.”
Now, there’s something to be said for Sillinger’s quality of teammates here. Perhaps Sillinger felt the need to do so much himself because no one else on his team was doing much of anything. Perhaps his passes were off-target so often because his teammates were not getting open for him in ways that allowed him to set them up.
That’s the thing: Sillinger showed some playmaking instincts and ability in the WHL. Some scouts think he’s still got the vision and the ability to make those passes. Perhaps on a better team with more reliable linemates, that playmaking could reappear.
Then there’s the defence. Or the lack thereof.
“He was a total no-show for Sioux Falls when his team was on the defensive,” reports Elite Prospects. “No scanning, no shoulder-checks, no support. Instead, Sillinger just wandered high in the zone, waiting for his teammates to turn possession in their favour.”
“There were some instances where I felt that just moving his feet a little bit might close out a gap enough to cause enough problems to create a turnover that could turn play around,” said prospect analyst Will Scouch, “but instead he’d get caught flat-footed and the puck would just go straight through him, right into dangerous areas.”
The passing and defensive issues are troubling because Sillinger is ostensibly a centre. He’s good on faceoffs and plays on the penalty kill, but his struggles with playmaking and defensive play are likely to bump him to the wing at the NHL level unless he takes big steps forwarded.
Here’s the thing: Sillinger wants to be a hard-working, defensively responsible centre.
“One player that's stood out to me is Bo Horvat of the Vancouver Canucks,” said Sillinger to Mike Morreale at NHL.com. “I just feel like he's a real good two-way guy who takes care of his D-zone and is relied upon in so many key situations. He's always like 5 feet away from everybody, supporting his wingers or defensemen and that's something I try to bring to my game."
If that’s who Sillinger wants to be, he needs to be far more consistent in the defensive zone. To his credit, he has the ability to play more of a role defensively, it just didn't come out often enough.
“There were situations where Sillinger really got involved defensively, threw his weight around, and tried to cause turnovers physically,” said Scouch. “I found that if Sillinger stays in motion with consistent footwork and pace...he can jump onto loose pucks in the middle of the ice, challenge opponents one-on-one, make space for himself, and create offensive transitions that way.”
If the desire is there, better defensive play could be coached into Sillinger, but that’s a tough risk for a team to take.
Is Sillinger the right pick for the Canucks?
There are shades of Brock Boeser in Sillinger’s game and it’s enough to give you pause when considering him as a prospect. He has the ability to do the hardest thing in hockey: put the puck in the net.
The unusual circumstance of not just switching teams but switching leagues in a pandemic-affected season makes it tough to evaluate Sillinger as well. Are his flaws a reflection of his situation? Is there a more defensively-responsible, playmaking centre lurking under the surface of Sillinger’s sniping?
Sillinger gets compared to everyone from Mark Scheifele to Vincent Trocheck to Jamie Benn. With his combination of physical strength and shooting tools, he could be a top-six goal-scoring forward in the NHL. The question is whether his all-around game will develop enough for him to make the most of his strengths.
If he can develop, Sillinger has the potential to be a top-six centre, which is a clear area of need in the Canucks' system. If the Canucks don’t think he can develop that aspect, they’re better off going with a more well-rounded prospect at ninth overall.