Blackhawks’ No. 11 pick in 2021 NHL Draft: Making the case for Cole Sillinger

With power forward attributes and a lethal shot, center Cole Sillinger could be a good fit for the Blackhawks.

The Second City Hockey staff will be profiling players who could be available at the No. 11 spot in the 2021 NHL Draft, where the Blackhawks will make their first-round selection. The draft starts Friday, June 23.

The Blackhawks have a surplus of forwards in the system, but not necessarily a ton of players projected to be top-six — especially those who relish engaging physically. If that’s an element the Blackhawks covet, then Canadian center Cole Sillinger could be exactly what they’re looking for with the No. 11 overall pick in this year’s draft.

The Basics

Position: Center
Age: 18 (May 16, 2003)
Hometown: Columbus, OH
Height: 6-foot-0
Weight: 201 pounds
Shoots: Left
Team: Sioux Falls Stampede (USHL)

Draft rankings

NHL Central Scouting (NHL): No. 10 North American skater
Elite Prospects: No. 12
Scott Wheeler (The Athletic): No. 9
Corey Pronman (The Athletic): No. 18
Cam Robinson (Dobber Prospects): No. 12
Craig Button (TSN): No. 17

Sillinger is an intriguing player due to his mix of elite skill and physicality, a combination that screams potential power forward in the NHL given a bit more weight training. With the 2020-21 WHL season delayed, Sillinger played in the USHL and was one of the top performers, producing 46 points (24 G, 22 A) in 31 games and finished fourth-best in the league with 1.48 points per game. With arguably the best shot in the 2021 draft class and his penchant for finding soft spots from which to score, it’s also no surprised that Sillinger was top 10 in goal-scoring despite missing over 20 games.

While it’s obvious Sillinger’s best asset is his lethal and versatile shooting ability, his physical play and compete level is what sets him apart from some of his comparables in this draft. Although not as big as a typical power forward, Sillinger competes like one in the offensive zone, using his strength to muscle his way between defenders and crash the net. Part of why Sillinger is such a deadly scoring chance machine is because of this physicality: he can both power his way to high-danger locations or break away to create separation to get off quality shots. The only downside is that Sillinger doesn’t carry over this strength into the defensive zone. He’s defensively responsible in the offensive zone and protects the puck well, but he’s less engaged elsewhere and will often wait for his teammates to regain possession in the DZ.

Some scouts have raised concern over Sillinger’s below average playmaking this past season — and his tracked shot assist rates in the graph above corroborate the dip — but that primarily seems to be due to the lack of quality teammates on his USHL team. Instead of using his teammates as he did the previous year in the WHL, Sillinger would often put himself into position to shoot, which is why his primary shot contribution involvement percentage was in the 96th percentile. In previous seasons, his playmaking was above average and his high on-ice intelligence with the puck means he’d likely be back in that range with a better team.

The primary reason Sillinger is often ranked outside the top 10 due to this skating, which is considered below average. Once he gets going, his straight-line speed is solid, but his first step is slow and his stride is clunky, which can cause issues in translating to higher leagues. However, Sillinger was still highly effective in transition (as seen in the chart above), his in-zone agility is excellent, and he’s shown improvement in technique year-over-year which is a testament to his work ethic.

For even more scouting on Sillinger, check out the deep dives from sibling  sites All About the Jersey and Hockey Wilderness.

Organizational fit

While the Blackhawks do have several centers in the system already, the search to find viable long-terms options down the middle is still wide open. Of those who have played in the NHL:

  • Jonathan Toews is expected to return to play in the 2021-22 season; however, he’s on the back end of his career so the next generation needs to be selected and developed now.
  • Kirby Dach is hopefully the 1C of the future but his development was stalled slightly due to his broken wrist in December 2020.
  • Dylan Strome seems to have fallen out of favor with the organization and is often in trade rumors
  • Pius Suter filled in admirably in a top-line center role but is more suited in a third-line center role or on the wing.
  • Philipp Kurashev was shuffled around the lineup in position and role. /

Outside of the NHL group, the Blackhawks have three potential centers:

  • Henrik Borgström didn’t impress in his original NHL stint, but he was excellent in the NCAA. As Stan Bowman’s latest reclamation project, he will likely be given every opportunity to make the roster this upcoming season.
  • Evan Barratt was great for the Rockford IceHogs, but he played more at wing as the season progressed and is more likely the translate to that position in the NHL.
  • Lucas Reichel was drafted as a winger, but he thrived at center when he was switched positions for his DEL team team, so he could surprise. /

Quantity of options at center shouldn’t prevent the Blackhawks from grabbing another because it’s unknown still if many — or any — will be long-term solutions. On top of that, those drafted as centers are typically more capable of switching to wing if needed — the extra position versatility is always valuable for a forward. Sillinger, in particular, is different than many listed above in that he is a potential power forward, something the Blackhawks are lacking within their system.