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Even after an impressive start, the best is yet to come for Sillinger

The NHL's youngest player this past season isn't taking anything for granted

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

Cole Sillinger spent the entire season as the youngest player in the NHL, yet he doesn't feel like he's proved anything yet. 

That's one reason his head coach, Brad Larsen, was so excited about how the now-19-year-old Blue Jackets forward left things when he wrapped up his rookie season in the NHL to head overseas and play in the World Championships. 

"I think he's got the right mind-set," Larsen said. "One of his last comments to me is that he's coming in with the same mind-set to try and make the team next year." 

With that, Larsen couldn't help but smile.  

"I like his chances right now," he said. 

That's a vastly different sentiment than the one Larsen had going into the 2021-22 season. It's not that he didn't want Sillinger on the roster, but he also knew that most 18-year-olds don't make it an entire season in the league unless they have something special.

That could be talent, heart, hockey sense -- or a combination of the three, as seems to be the case with Sillinger. There were moments this past season where he surely was tired, where the offense didn't come, but Sillinger still fought through and delivered, playing 79 games and posting 16 goals (tied for third-most ever for a CBJ rookie) and 31 points. 

Video: Nash invites Cole to Worlds!

"What he did as an 18-year-old, that's a pretty special year," Larsen said once it concluded. "We joked about it early on, but I was actually very serious. I tried many times to get him out of here. I did. I said, 'I need to get you out of here,' but he wouldn't go away. He would not go away, this kid, and made our team and if you talk to him, he had a lot of ups and downs too, a lot of peaks and valleys.  

"When you talk about that trajectory curve, he's still young, but he's one of the guys that we're very excited about, obviously." 

Even Sillinger, when the honesty kicks in, admits he didn't think he'd last an entire season in the NHL at age 18. Again, it's no lack of faith in his abilities -- the son of longtime NHLer Mike Sillinger, he was thought to be one of the top players in last summer's draft, going 12th overall to Columbus after a dominant season in the United States Hockey League -- but it was surely a big jump from the country's top junior league to the top league in the world.  

"It's tough to say," he said of his expectations going into his rookie season. "My mind-set after the draft was obviously I wanted to make the NHL as soon as I could. That's just kind of the person I am, having that mentality. If the first person to believe I could play in the NHL a year later was me, then that wouldn't have happened. But looking back on it, I probably honestly wouldn't have thought I was going to do it." 

Not only did Sillinger do it, he excelled at times. His production was pretty comparable to a pair of No. 1 overall picks of recent vintage at age 18, as Rick Nash posted a 17-22-39 line in his rookie year of 2002-03 with Columbus and Jack Hughes had 7-14-21 in 61 games with New Jersey as the No. 1 pick in 2019-20. 

Both of those players would quickly go on to become superstars -- Nash tied for the NHL lead with 41 goals a year later, while Hughes posted 56 points in 49 games this past season at age 20 -- so there has to be some excitement of what could be next for Sillinger. 

"He was really good already this year as an 18-year-old, so I can't even imagine how much better he's gonna be in two or three years," Patrik Laine said. 

"I don't know what expectations were for him as far as where he was going to be on the team or if he was going to be able to handle it or not, but I think he made it a hard decision for the management," Oliver Bjorkstrand added. "They kept him all year. He deserved it." 

There's plenty of reason to think Sillinger can be even better as he gets older, as well. Much of the conversation about his skill set going into the draft centered on what scouts believed was one of the best shots in the draft, and he should get more opportunities to show that off as he gets older. 

The center also finished well down the stretch, including notching his first career hat trick March 13 vs. Vegas and adding five goals and eight points in the last 10 games of the season. 

Video: VGK@CBJ: Sillinger records 1st career NHL hat trick

"I'd say these last 10, 15, 20 games, just getting a little more opportunity," he said. "When that happens, you get a little more confident with the puck and just get more comfortable, more relaxed. Maybe feels like the game kind of slows down for you a little bit. I was happy with not only how I played these last 20 games but how our group played. I thought we competed hard." 

In other words, the best is yet to come, and Sillinger has shown well with a pair of goals in six games thus far with the Canadian national team at the Worlds. All is set up for Sillinger to be a bona fide impact player at the NHL level as long as he keeps on the same track -- something Larsen expects to see going forward. 

"To finish the year, I think he played 79 games, 30-plus points, 16 goals," the head coach said. "Man, if you were to tell me at the beginning of the year or in Traverse City, that that's where that kid is going to be, I don't know, I probably would have lost that bet. 

"But then you get to know you him. You get to know Cole a little bit and you get to know his maturity for an 18-year-old, you get to know his mind-set. He's ahead of his years that way. 

"Now, we're gonna have to be patient with him too. He's coming in as a 19-year-old next year and now there's expectations, and that changes (things). … Well, now he set a bar for himself. But what I liked about Cole and I think he has a very good understanding of himself, is his foundation is solid. I think he knows where it needs to be." 

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