by Alyssa Dombrowski || for NHL.com
The long-standing adage that “age is just a number” has a special meaning when it comes to Colton Sissons of the Milwaukee Admirals, who earlier this week turned 20 amidst his rookie season in the American Hockey League.
The 6-foot-1 center has tallied four goals and two assists in the first eight games of his professional career and is tied for second in scoring for the Nashville Predators’ top affiliate.
Sissons’ immediate on-ice productivity is a direct reflection of a mentality that extends far beyond his years, according to Admirals head coach Dean Evason.
“What’s really impressed us and the Nashville Predators organization is how he conducts himself at such an early age on and off the ice,” said Evason. “He is very mature. It’s as if he’s been a 10-year pro in how he goes about his business, how he prepares for games and how he is with his teammates off the ice.
“On the ice, he plays a real calm, mature, veteran-like game, and that allows him to play in every situation – he’s on our penalty kill, he takes key faceoffs, he’s a key part of our power play and obviously he plays a ton of minutes five-on-five.”
Sissons, who spent the past three seasons with the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League and served as the team’s captain the last two, credits his previous leadership role for his smooth shift to the professional leagues.
“I think it makes the transition a whole lot easier if you can come in with more maturity than your typical 19-year-old,” said Sissons, a second-round draft pick (50th overall) by the Predators in 2012. “I learned that a little bit being captain back in Kelowna, and I grew up pretty fast there. That’s something that’s carried on with me and has helped me a lot for sure.”
Another thing that has helped Sissons adjust is the combined experience of Evason – who has amassed more than two decades of playing and coaching experience at the NHL level – as well as his Admirals teammates.
“I have a lot of respect for [Evason],” said Sissons. “He has a lot of experience, he’s a great coach and he really treats us like men.
“I’m just all ears right now to the older group leaders in our locker room and to our coaches. I’m just trying to soak in everything I can.”
Evason, who spent seven seasons as an assistant coach with the Washington Capitals before coming to Milwaukee in 2012, recognizes the importance of guiding rookies such as Sissons through their new role as a professional athlete.
“When we sit down and have our one-on-one meetings at the beginning of the year, one of the biggest messages [we give rookies] is to become a pro as quickly as you can,” said Evason. “When you have that maturity level both on and off the ice, we believe it gives you an opportunity to have your game develop in a more timely manner.”
Sissons’ development is well ahead of schedule, according to his coach.
“For a guy like Colton who already has that within him, I think our teaching is more simple little things … being a little heavier on pucks and on his stick and making good decisions,” said Evason.
When it comes to training the native of North Vancouver, B.C., Evason and his coaching staff have a plethora of established skill to build on.
“I think his offense comes from his all-around game,” said Evason. “He doesn’t cheat – he doesn’t just think offensively and blow the defensive zone and that type of stuff. His goals come from being in the right position defensively and then translating that into offensive opportunities.”
Sissons’ initial success as an individual has gone hand in hand with that of his team so far this year. A month into the 2013-14 season, the Admirals (6-0-2-0) remain the only team in the AHL without a regulation loss – an accomplishment that Sissons takes pride in, but knows can be fleeting in the game of hockey.
“Obviously it’s nice to have no losses in regulation yet, but they’ll come,” said Sissons. “As we all know, it’s part of the game and we’re just trying to ride out the good start as long as we can.
“I think everyone just bought into what our coaches were preaching to us early on,” he continued. “We’re a pretty simple, hard-working team and that’s how we’ve been beating teams so far. It’s nothing fancy, just a lot of hard work and playing our systems how we want to.”
The early hot streak of the Admirals, who travel to the Austin suburb of Cedar Park to take on the Texas Stars in back-to-back matchups this weekend, has proven to be opportune for Sissons and his fellow rookies.
“It’s definitely allowed me to have a lot of opportunity,” said Sissons. “We’ve been in a lot of tight games and my coaches have put me in for a lot of important situations.
“I think when we’re winning, they’re a little bit more inclined to throw the younger guys out there and see what they can do. Fortunately I’ve been able to perform pretty well so far.”
Evason is impressed by the on-ice prominence he has seen from the rookies on his roster.
“You put people like Colton Sissons into our lineup, and there hasn’t been a transition period [for him] to learn how to play the game [at the pro level],” said Evason. “We’ve got several people in our lineup like that – Simon Moser, Joonas Rask, Miikka Salomaki – all first-year guys that are able to come in and play vital roles for us.”
Since leaving the WHL, Sissons’ realization of the ensuing changes in the game has helped him become acclimated to his new role at the professional level.
“It’s definitely been a transition,” said Sissons. “Everything happens at a lot faster pace [than in juniors] – that’s been the biggest difference for me.
“I’ve just had to really keep my mind sharp and make plays as quickly as I possibly can, because guys are closing in on you a whole lot faster.”
The competition isn’t the only group to evolve skill-wise since his graduation from juniors. Sissons is centering some of the Admirals’ best offensive threats, a position which Evason says attests to his advanced capabilities on the ice.
“Colton is playing with Taylor Beck, who was in Nashville for a big part of the year last season,” said Evason. “He’s playing alongside Simon Moser, who’s been a pro in Switzerland for a few years.
“We don’t have ‘one,’ ‘two,’ ‘three’ or ‘four’ lines – we play all four. Without putting a title [on his role], he’s certainly been a huge part of our forward position there for sure.”
Evason didn’t hesitate in his response when asked if he foresees Sissons’ skills in the American League translating into a successful NHL career.
“There’s no question,” said Evason. “We think he’s got a great upside and he’s a great prospect.
“He’s a big part of our team here, but we don’t think he’s going to be here [in Milwaukee] for an extended period of time. His development already has just been in leaps, and we anticipate that it will continue until he gets his opportunity to show what he can do at the NHL level.”
Sissons’ ultimate professional goal for himself echoes that of his coaching staff in Milwaukee.
“Obviously my goal is to play for the Nashville Predators and get my foot in the NHL door, if you will,” said Sissons. “I hope that I can get called up and get a taste of the NHL hopefully sooner [rather than] later.
“That’s about the only goal I have for myself. I’m keeping it pretty simple and just trying to enjoy my first couple months of pro here, and continue the start that we’ve had.”
Showing the signs of a true professional, Sissons hasn’t let the excitement of turning pro distract him from the task at hand.
“I focus on my own performance and doing my job for my teammates – just keep it as simple as that and the rest takes care of itself.”