The summer is quickly going by. NHL teams have made their draft picks, signed most of the players in free agency, and have made trades to shape their roster for the upcoming season. While more signings and trades are to come, most experts are penciling lineups for all 32 teams, including the Blue Jackets.
The Blue Jackets have a plethora of forwards (15) and defenseman (8) that are NHL players. Generally, 12 forwards (4 lines of 3) and 6 defensemen play in a game, except for the occasional 11 forwards – 7 defensemen model. That means that the additional roster moves (i.e. trades) will likely be coming for the Blue Jackets. How do rookies for the upcoming season play into the equation? Every season, teams have rookies push for roster spots and generally have at least one rookie play through the entire season.
With the plethora of bodies under contract, realistically I see 3 rookies that could make an impact on the team this season:
- Adam Fantilli. This one is a no-brainer. Fantilli was one of the highest rated prospects in the 2023 NHL draft, which is why the CBJ took him at 3rd overall. He has the size, speed, and skill to be an effective player in the league right now. The CBJ upper management agrees, as he was signed to a 3-year entry level contract just days after being drafted. Expect Fantilli to play somewhere in the top 9 to start the season. If he plays and develops as expected, Fantilli could easily be promoted to the 1st or 2nd line center position by the end of the season.
- David Jiricek. The CBJ drafted Jiricek at 6th overall in the 2022 NHL draft. He narrowly missed making the team last season. He could have easily been on the team with the surplus of injuries. However, instead of hampering his development, the CBJ opted to have him play on the top defensive pair for the Cleveland Monsters. Jiricek did not disappoint. He was by far Cleveland’s best defender and made the AHL all-star game as a rookie. Now, he has his sights on a full-time NHL roster spot. He has all the tools to be an elite defenseman in the NHL. Expect Jiricek to play on the 3rd pair to start the season, likely paired with a veteran defenseman to help transition him to the NHL. Once Jiricek gains confidence, it would not be surprising to see him lock-down a top-4 role on the defense.
- Dmitri Voronkov. The CBJ drafted the 22 year old in the 2019 NHL draft at 114th overall. Since then, he has played in the KHL and has been an effective player. He has size, grit, and can score. He is physically mature for the NHL. The key for him will be acclimating to the smaller NHL rink size. However, this may not take long, as other Russian players have transitioned smoothly (see Kirill Marchenko). He likely would not have left Russia if the organization didn’t think he could make the team out of camp. The expectation is for Voronkov to make the CBJ and play on the 3rd or 4th line. He will likely start on the wing and may transition to center once he gets more comfortable. Expect to see him on the penalty kill.
There are other rookies who could have an impact on the team in 2023-2024. Some of those candidates includes Hunter McKown, Luca Del Bel Belluz, Mikael Pyyhtia, and James Malatesta. However, the CBJ do not need to rush any of these players. As mentioned earlier, the team has a plethora of players on their roster.
So, a rookie will need to take a job away from an established player; they will not just be handed a spot. The best thing for many of these prospects is to develop in Cleveland. The Blue Jackets have a solid prospect pool (analyst rankings range from 1st to 5th overall in the entire league). The best way to transition prospects into becoming solid NHL players is to develop them and not rush them. A vast majority of past Stanley Cup champions have followed this path and have reaped the rewards.
The Blue Jackets will be a much better team than last season. These 3 rookies should aid in that improvement. Look for the CBJ to be a fast, youthful team that will be exciting to watch this upcoming season.