« We think he’s ready. » Blue Jackets believe third overall pick Adam Fantilli can turn pro for 2023-24 season


NASHVILLE — The 2023 NHL Draft didn’t really get started with the first overall pick Wednesday night. It had to be Connor Bedard. The suspense was non-existent when the Chicago Blackhawks took to the podium.

But that all changed at the No. 2 pick, when the Anaheim Ducks dropped a bombshell. Confirming an idea that began as a whisper in NHL draft pundit circles in the hours leading up to the pick, the Ducks zapped by taking Leo Carlsson.

Zag? Yes. It was an unexpected pick when center Adam Fantilli, who just won the Hockey Baker award with arguably the best freshman season in the modern NCAA division. In the story, I sat there available at No. 2, a player so talented that many scouts suggest he would have been the No. 1 overall pick in the previous two drafts.

Carlsson, a potentially dominant franchise center in his own right, was a deserving No. 2 pick. But make no mistake: Fantilli has fallen. He’s been entrenched in his own tier as a projected No. 2 selection for most of this season. Slipping even a single spot qualified as a moderate surprise to say the least. Not that Fantilli expressed dismay in the minutes and hours after the Columbus Blue Jackets caught him.

Columbus was no consolation prize for Fantilli. As he revealed on Wednesday, it was his favorite destination. Not only is it much closer to his hometown of Nobleton, Ont., the Blue Jackets are packed with alumni of his school, the University of Michigan, from Zach Werenski to Kent Johnson. And he is impressed by the talent that will surround him.

“They have amazing guys like Johnny Gaudreau, Patrik Laine and Zach Werenski, all types of guys that have been around the league and then guys starting out,” Fantilli said. « It’s going to be so special and it’s going to mean a lot to me to walk into the dressing room and meet these guys and learn from them as much as possible. »

Development camp is in a few days, of course. But when will we see Fantilli in meaningful gaming action with the likes of Gaudreau and Laine? Fantilli admitted Wednesday night that he still hasn’t decided to play another season at Michigan.

« Dev camp is next week and we’ll talk to the staff there and talk to people around me with my agency and see what the plan is, » Fantilli said.

Fantilli, the third freshman to win the Hobey Baker after Paul Kariya and Jack Eichel, may not have an NCAA championship to his name, but he doesn’t have much else to prove at the level. university. He has the dominating offensive ceiling to improve everyone around him. His body is NHL ready at 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen left no doubt on Wednesday night when asked if he thought Fantilli could make the jump to 2023-24.

« We’ll talk to him about it, but we think he’s ready, » Kekalainen said. « We’re going to make sure he knows we feel he’s ready. He’s already accomplished so much at the college level, winning the Hobey Baker his freshman year and producing nearly two points per game, playing at the Men’s World Championship, playing at the World Juniors, that he’s ready for the next challenge. It’s something we’re going to talk about with him, but we’re going to heed his thinking and listen to him very carefully. But we feel he is ready.

Assuming Fantilli wants to turn pro, the Blue Jackets will add him to a roster where he would have a real chance of playing a high-impact role right off a score line.

« Adam is definitely not a fourth line player or controller, » Kekalainen said. “He’s a guy who has always played on the first line with the best players on his team. He’s going to have a very big opportunity with us to show that he can belong in those lines and that kind of role with our team as well. (He, like everyone else, will have to earn his ice time on this team.

After losing more than 550 games to a man to injury last season, the Blue Jackets were expected to improve significantly with better team health next season alone. But then they added defenders Ivan Provorov and Damon Severson via trade earlier this month. Considering that last year’s first-round pick, defenseman David Jiricek, is likely to make the team this season, the Blue Jackets have a chance to improve quickly. Fantilli would undoubtedly speed this up. But based on Kekalainen’s comments on Wednesday, Fantilli could hold the cards in terms of deciding to turn professional.

Whatever happens, any camouflaged narrative is out the window for Fantilli. Wednesday was a happy night. His suit was lined with the names of all the people in his life who helped him get to this moment. And he is delighted to imagine himself in Blue Jacket.

« If I can blast that cannon, » he said, « that’s gonna be really cool. »



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