On Tuesday, The Athletic’s Corey Pronman released his latest U23 player rankings, which comprised 169 players across four draft classes.
The Columbus Blue Jackets were well-represented in the ranking with eight players. For reference, only four teams – the Buffalo Sabres (13), Montreal Canadiens (12), Anaheim Ducks (9), and Minnesota Wild (9) have more. With 169 players listed and 32 NHL teams, the typical team would have five players ranked. Of course, trophies aren’t handed out over a rather subjective (and contentious) ranking, done by one man at a point in time. Still, it’s encouraging to see the franchise higher on the list than lower. Here’s how Pronman ranked the Blue Jackets:
Rank Name Position Tier Projection 4 Adam Fantilli Forward 2 Elite NHL player 32 Kent Johnson Forward 6 Top of the lineup player 34 David Jiricek Defense 6 Top of the lineup player 92 Yegor Chinakhov Forward 8 Middle of the lineup player 93 Cole Sillinger Forward 8 Middle of the lineup player 99 Denton Mateychuk Defense 8 Middle of the lineup player 122 Gavin Brindley Forward 8 Middle of the lineup player 145 Stanislav Svozil Defense 8 Middle of the lineup player
A few items come to mind right away. The first is just how special Adam Fantill is, already. Only Connor Bedard stands in a higher standing (Tier 1 – Bubble generational player and elite NHL player), and only Jack Hughes and Tim Stützle are higher in Tier 2. His trending toward achieving his potential is on the very short list of only things that matter for the rest of this season. The second is just how well-perceived Kent Johnson is, even after a sophomore campaign that has been rocky at times. On both counts, I agree with Pronman. Fantilli’s blend of size, skating, moxie, and shot is just special. Johnson is the type of player who has clear deficiencies (size, speed), but his assets (vision, passing, creativity) are so off-the-charts that it’s easy to daydream about that battery for the next decade.
Lastly, the depth stands out. If Yegor Chinakhov, Cole Sillinger, and Gavin Brindley are all middle-six fixtures, and Fantilli and Johnson comprise two-thirds of a top line, it’s easy to find optimism about the future. Remember, that wouldn’t include Kirill Marchenko, who just aged out, to say nothing of players like Boone Jenner, Johnny Gaudreau, and Patrik Laine. Put another way, the current roster will change dramatically over the coming years, because there is a wave of young players that are ready to take steps.
Which brings me to pessimism. I just said that it would be easy to find optimism about the future… and I think that’s true, to a point. The above table showcases an impressive stable of young players. But while I commend GM Jarmo Kekalainen’s track record on bringing in quality young players and prospects to the organization, that’s where the compliments would have to end. How can anyone who has watched this season with objective eyes think that this combination of quasi-lame duck front office and eyes-wide-open coaching staff is harmonized enough to find the right balance between youth and stability, or able to identify which pieces belong, in the right place in the lineup, and for fair contract value, over the long-haul. Drama seems to follow this franchise. Is this a rebuilding team with a number of regrettable contracts, or a team that’s trying to win and is just lousy at achieving that objective?
So, it’s fair to say both of the following two statements: (1) The Columbus Blue Jackets have a pipeline that should allow them to compete in a big way in relatively short order, and (2), the word “should” is doing a lot of heavy lifting based off the information we have.
With another lottery finish likely this season, the Blue Jackets will likely continue to be a constant on Pronman’s U23 ranking. Taking a step in the standings would be the next item to knock off the list.