As the dust begins to settle on another franchise-defining offseason for the Columbus Blue Jackets, the prospect pool appears to be, once again, in the best position in franchise history. Taking a look at what the Blue Jackets have waiting in the wings is cause for celebration… except when you are asked to rank them. Much like the 2023 NHL Draft, the first overall pick appears to be as much of a lock as any – spoiler alert: Adam Fantilli does not drop on this list. To set the ground rules, to be considered a prospect for the sake of this list, players must have played less than 41 NHL regular-season games or half of an NHL season – players like Kent Johnson and Kirill Marchenko have graduated from prospect status.
(1) Adam Fantilli
It may be safe to assume that Adam Fantilli has also graduated from prospect status, being the first player from the 2023 NHL Draft to sign his entry-level contract. However, the rules are the rules, and Adam Fantilli is the best Columbus Blue Jackets prospect since Rick Nash. I’m a little hesitant to crown him the best prospect the Blue Jackets have ever had, especially when the current title-holder is the only Blue Jacket to have his number in the Nationwide Arena rafters. However, the future NHL star could easily freeze that take in short order.
What can be said about Fantilli that hasn’t been said before? After an incredible first year at the University of Michigan, Fantilli became the third Wolverine to take home the Hobey Baker Award, given to the NCAA men’s collegiate ice hockey player of the year. Fantilli joins Johnny Gaudreau as the only player in Blue Jackets history to win the award, though he fell 15 points shy of matching Gaudreau’s total in the 2013-2014 NCAA season.
Fantilli’s NCAA stat line of 30-35-65 in 36 games only paints part of the picture. The obvious star of the Blue Jackets development camp in early July showed impeccable skating abilities, was incredibly difficult to force off of a puck, and demonstrated that he is easily the Blue Jackets’ best prospect. History may show that it was never even that close.
(2) David Jiricek
As if he needed much help, David Jiricek’s first year as a professional in North America solidified his spot as the Blue Jackets’ top prospect on the blue line. Outside North America, Jiricek helped Czechia bring home a silver medal at the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championships, where he was named the event’s top defenseman.
Zach Werenski has long been touted as the quarterback of the first power-play unit in Columbus, but Jiricek may have something to say about that soon. The defenseman led all AHL rookies in power-play assists with 20. For reference, TJ Tynan led the league with 37 total, while fellow rookie Georgii Merkulov has 18 with Providence.
Perhaps the biggest question surrounding Jiricek’s development going into the 2023-2024 season is… where will he play? The Blue Jackets acted with intentionality when they left him in Cleveland for all but four games last season – at times when the battered and bruised Blue Jackets’ blue line was missing four to five lineup regulars. I expect him to start the year in Cleveland due to the gluttony of defensemen on a one-way deal, though I would be far from surprised to see Jiricek make the Opening Night roster.
(3) Denton Mateychuk
It was apparent that the Jackets would take a defenseman with their first pick in the 2022 NHL Draft, though things were less certain at the 12 spot. Needless to say, they have to be pretty happy with their choice to grab a second defenseman in the first round, drafting Denton Mateychuk, the play-driving blue liner with quite the streak of confidence in his game. Mateychuk is continuing to develop into what the Blue Jackets hoped he would, and another season with Moose Jaw could be exactly what he needs to ensure he’s ready to stake claim to a roster spot with the big club in 2024-2025.
The Moose Jaw Warriors captain would be looking to tally 60+ points for the third season in a row after having registered 64 in the 2021-2022 season and 65 last season. The Warriors have played in twenty playoff games the previous two seasons, and an opportunity for a third playoff run could help Mateychuk further develop the compete level necessary to be a bona fide NHLer.
(4) Jordan Dumais
It’s really hard putting the reigning Jean Beliveau Trophy (most points in the QMJHL) and Michel Brière Memorial Trophy (most valuable player in the QMJHL) at fourth on this list. After producing a stat line of 54-86-140 in 64 games last year, skeptics wonder how Dumais’ offensive firepower will translate to the NHL game. If skeptics don’t find themselves concerned about the translation of his skill, they take issue with his height, a modest 5’9″. Does Dumais have some work to do on his 200-foot game before cracking the NHL lineup? Sure. Is there cause for concern over his height? Maybe.
If you’re asking those questions about Dumais’ game, you’re failing to include the most important question of them all – what’s this guy’s ceiling? It’s not impossible to imagine Jordan Dumais developing into an Oliver Bjorkstrand type for the Blue Jackets – a guy who can play most roles and will interject some much-needed scoring into your lineup. Is it silly to imagine that Dumais is going to develop into the likes of Sidney Crosby – who scored 135 and 168 points in his two Michel Brière Memorial Trophy-winning seasons? Absolutely, yes. Is it impossible to imagine him developing into a player the likes of Conor Garland, who won two Michel Brière Memorial trophies with 129 and 128 points, respectively? It’s certainly not impossible to imagine that.
(5) Stanislav Svozil
Oft overshadowed by fellow Regina Pat alumnus Connor Bedard, Stanislav Svozil has experienced a bit of a meteoric rise on my prospect list over the last couple of seasons. Drafted by the Jackets in the third round of the 2021 NHL Draft, Svozil has continued to develop significantly since his draft year, making his NHL debut at the end of the 2022-2023 season. It didn’t take long for Svozil to continue his playmaking ways, tallying an assist in his NHL debut against the Pittsburgh Penguins. After drafting Adam Fantilli, Jackets fans may be less upset to know Svozil’s first NHL point came on Emil Bemstrom’s game-tying goal to send that one into overtime, where the Jackets eventually won, guaranteeing they would likely not have the best odd in the Connor Bedard sweepstakes.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the Jackets have yet another solid two-way defenseman in their ranks. At this point, it’s almost to a level of gluttony. Svozil will spend the season in Cleveland, where he has the potential to play some meaningful minutes for a team that should be competitive, although that hasn’t exactly been the case the last few seasons. Svozil can clog the neutral zone, making it impossible for teams to transition effectively, and he knows when to add a physical element to his game. Svozil will deservedly continue to earn the attention of the 5th line on his ascent to the NHL.
While the top five is where the high-impact prospects land on my list, it’s fair to say that 6-10 on this list have an opportunity to not only make it to the NHL but they have an opportunity to make a difference on an NHL roster.
(6) Luca Del Bel Belluz
Del Bel Belluz, Columbus’ 2022 second-round draft pick, spent half of the 2022-2023 season in Mississauga before being traded to the Sarnia Sting, where he scored eight goals this postseason and registered seven assists for a total of 15 points in 16 games played. After putting up a total of 87 points in 66 games, including 40 goals, Del Bel Belluz looks to make a significant impact in the AHL this season. His skating has always been a concern for scouts and pundits, but it didn’t seem too concerning at Development Camp. Plus, Del Bel Belluz has bulked up over the last year – he will be a player to watch this season in Cleveland.
(7) Gavin Brindley
The University of Michigan’s takeover of Central Ohio didn’t stop on the first night of the 2023 NHL Draft. There were more than a few mock drafts that had Brindley as a late first-round selection, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that he finds himself on this list. Admittedly, this could be a low ranking for Brindley, but having seen a little more of Del Bel Belluz and Svozil, I had a hard time ranking him above them. That being said, if Fantilli was the most popular player at Development Camp, Brindley was certainly second. Aside from the two’s friendship, they had a clear chemistry on the ice – it’s hard to imagine these guys not sharing NHL ice soon.
Brindley is a little on the smaller side, but you wouldn’t be able to tell him that. He plays with a ton of grit, is one heck of a forechecker, and could be an excellent special teams player. From what I saw at Development Camp, there’s a glimpse of Cam Atkinson’s game in Gavin Brindley, which will land incredibly well in Columbus.
(8) Dmitri Voronkov
He’s here. Voronkov will finally make his NHL debut this season after signing a two-year entry-level contract with the Jackets this offseason. There has been a lot of excitement surrounding the player since he was drafted in the fourth round of the 2019 NHL Draft. Some of that excitement surely has to do with the four-year wait, but it’s hard not to be excited about the 6’4″ fierce to be reckoned with that is Dmitri Voronkov. Last season, with Ak Bars Kazan (KHL), Voronkov scored 18 goals in 54 games, complimented by 13 assists. His Gagarin Cup playoff stats were impressive, as well, posting 8-4-12 in 24 games played.
Voronkov will almost certainly start the season in Columbus, in part due to his contract that stipulates that he has permission to return to Russia should he not be in the Blue Jackets lineup in December. I suspect he’ll play bottom-six minutes on the wing to ease into the NHL, but it may not be long before he anchors the third or fourth line.
(9) James Malatesta
That’s Guy Lafleur Memorial Trophy-winning James Malatesta to you. After an electric postseason run that ended in a Memorial Cup championship, Malatesta is going to be someone to watch in Cleveland. He has been noticeable every time he has put on a Blue Jackets sweater. After two Traverse City Prospect Tournament appearances, multiple development camps, and multiple training camps, Malatesta is more than ready for this next step. His constant “go, go, go” mentality is going to fit in quite nicely in Cleveland. My entirely far too bold of prediction is that Malatesta could find himself in contention for the Dudley “Red” Garrett Memorial Award as the AHL Rookie of the Year.
(10) Corson Ceulemans
After debuting in Cleveland last season, Corson Ceulemans will likely have the opportunity to play a meaningful but perhaps guarded role with the Monsters this season. The gluttony of NHL defensemen on Columbus’ roster means that the Cleveland blueline – barring any waiver claims, trades. or catastrophic injuries before the puck drops – has the opportunity of being elite. Ceulemans will have to play his way into a meaningful role, but he’ll likely get it done. He’s the kind of defenseman that has always been loved in Columbus, a shut-down, no-nonsense, responsible blueliner – the question will be, how long does it take for him to crack the NHL lineup? Although he’s the fourth defenseman on this list, he may have the second-best defensive awareness of anyone on this list, behind David Jiricek – that will continue to serve him well.
Perhaps a key omission from this list is Daniil Tarasov. The injury-plagued goaltender, previously crowned “future owner of the crease,” has regressed in my rankings in large part due to his inability to piece together long strings of games without injury at both the NHL and AHL levels. For as strong as the Blue Jackets prospect pool is at forward and on defense, there’s something to be desired in their goaltending pipeline – my two cents. Even with that in mind, Columbus easily possesses a top-5 prospect pool in the NHL. The real test is – how will it materialize?