Name: Cole Sillinger
Team: Sioux Falls Stampede (USHL)
Position: Left wing / Center
Stats: 31 games played, 24 goals, 22 assists, 46 points, 39 PIMs
NHL Central Scouting ranking: 10th (North American skaters)
Comparable NHL player: Tyler Toffoli
When Cole Sillinger decided to switch leagues from the WHL to the USHL scouts were pretty confident that the skilled forward was going to terrorize the league.
But how he terrorized it came as a pretty big surprise — and also raised some questions about just who Sillinger is as a prospect and what he might be as a player in the future when his development is complete.
Sillinger exploded onto the WHL scene in the 2019-20 season as a 16-year-old member of the Medicine Hat Tigers, putting up 53 points in 48 games, an even higher point-per-game average than his more highly-touted WHL peer Dylan Guenther. As someone who isn’t the biggest body and is not a particularly good skater, the son of former NHLer Mike Sillinger instead relies on his elite offensive awareness and elite feel for the puck to be dangerous.
Those abilities were on full display in his rookie WHL campaign, most notably on the powerplay, where half of his points came from. Every time he got the puck on his stick and had a little bit of time and space to operate he was electric, able to outthink opposing penalty killers and find prime gaps to thread hard, accurate passes through. His overall playmaking was sublime, and enemy teams really had to start making an extra effort to cover him.
But then, after Sillinger joined the Sioux Falls Stampede and made the jump to the USHL, something funny happened: his style of play changed.
He went from being more of a cerebral pass-first player, someone who would look to slow things down to let pieces fall into place and survey his options, to a much more aggressive and straight-line shoot-first player, who was frequently trying to push the pace and was willing to fire pucks from anywhere. Sure, Sillinger was dangerous as a shooter in Medicine Hat as well, but there was just something that looked quite different in how he approached what was happening on the ice in the USHL. And boy, was this new version of SIllinger impressive in its own right. Some of the goals he scored this past season were downright ridiculous, ones that NHL goaltenders might have even had a hard time stopping.
The statistical results tell the story pretty well: going from 22 goals and 31 assists (18 on the powerplay) in 2019-20, to 24 goals and 22 assists (seven on the powerplay) in 2020-21. It’s also worth checking out the video on Sillinger done by the very wise Will Scouch on his “Scouching” Youtube channel, as it digs into the analytics on this topic.
What caused such a big stylistic change? One theory is that Sillinger went from being on a team with talented older forwards that he could defer pucks to, to a younger team with less offensive firepower. With less skill around him maybe he felt the need to take things into his own hands more often, possibly even doing so out of a sense of leadership. Maybe it was done intentionally to round out his game and improve in areas that he felt he was lacking in. This theory holds some water as well, because he also got a little quicker and a little more physical when with Sioux Falls, and even regularly played center (though his future in the NHL is most likely going to be moreso on the wing).
While there are always some concerns about prospects who try to do too much on their own and can play like they’re wearing horse blinders (hockey is, after all, a team game), it’s really hard to get too down on Sillinger and what he brings as a player.
The fact that he showed in the WHL how well he could play with his teammates is a great sign that he will be able to swing the pendulum further back in that direction in the future. There is also this really intriguing pest-like competitive edge that he displays a lot. When things get chippy and the intensity ratchets up you can usually see a little more spring in his step as he rises to meet the challenge. Maybe most important of all, though, is that it’s simply incredibly hard to find players who can get the puck on their stick in a good spot and single-handedly break open a close game. Sure, you don’t want that to be the only thing that a guy tries to do, but sometimes it’s necessary, and when it’s necessary you want guys who can do it well.
There are some limitations with Sillinger that will probably push him into the teens of the 2021 draft, namely him being a lackluster skater, but also an occasional bad habit of him dropping out of the play without the puck and letting others dig in instead. However, there is still something special on display here, both with what he can do with the puck as well as a mental edge that pops up from time to time, that will make him highly coveted by a lot of teams.