Wolverines Invading Columbus: Budding Blue Jackets Core Buoyed By Latest Top Picks From Up North

By Will Chase on June 30, 2023 at 1:45 pm
Brutus Buckeye watches Michigan Wolverines' Adam Fantilli during third period of the Faceoff on the Lake outdoor NCAA men's hockey game at FirstEnergy Stadium. Ohio State won 4-2.
Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Maize meets union blue.

The fraternity is growing stronger in Central Ohio.

First it was Zach Werenski. Then Kent Johnson and Nick Blankenburg. Now there’s recent Columbus Blue Jackets' top draft pick, the uber-talented center, and reigning Hobey Baker Award winner, Adam Fantilli, and second-round pick Gavin Brindley.

Columbus Blue Jackets draft pick Adam Fantilli puts on his sweater after being selected with the third pick in round one of the 2023 NHL Draft at Bridgestone Arena.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The one obvious trait these five players share is they hail from up north. Namely, the University of Michigan.

General manager Jarmo Kekalainen addressed the University of Michigan talent infusion into Columbus over the past few years, calling it a coincidence but saying it's not too surprising when you see the level of talent and quality players the Wolverines are forming.

Fantilli figures to be the No. 1 center the Blue Jackets have long coveted throughout the 23 years of the franchise's history.

The Athletic's Corey Pronman ranked the Blue Jackets' draft pretty well, giving it an A, and Fantilli alone helps the curve on that grade. As far as NHL career projections, Pronman places Fantilli in the echelon of elite-NHL players with his skill and lists future Hall of Famer Jonathan Toews as Fantilli's NHL player comparable.

Analysis: There’s so much to love about Fantilli’s NHL projection. He’s got a huge frame, skates well and competes very hard. He wins a lot of battles and isn’t shy to use his big frame to lay out opponents. He has game-breaking puck skills and will be able to beat NHL opponents regularly with his puckhandling, especially given his speed and wingspan. His playmaking isn’t the main thing that gets you excited about his game, but Fantilli can make difficult passes and has strong enough sense to create chances in the NHL. His shot is also a threat from range. That he can create with so much pace is what makes him exciting from an NHL perspective. He checks every box and projects as a No. 1 center on a good NHL team.

Thoughts on the pick: Fantilli looks like a future NHL star and cornerstone for Columbus. He checks every box you want in a premium player: size, skating, offense and physicality. He becomes the most important part of their rebuild, and someone who could potentially be in the league for them next season as they try to win. Now with Fantilli, Cole Sillinger, and Kent Johnson in the organization, they have options down the middle with significant talent, something they haven’t had in arguably their franchise’s existence.

In addition to our pre-draft write-ups and analysis of Fantilli, we also covered Brindley. The Athletic's Scott Wheeler provided a glowing scouting report at that time:

Brindley’s a plus-level skater who gets through his extensions quickly (including from a standstill), excels on his edges, rounds corners sharply, and darts around the ice, hunting pucks and pushing through holes.

He’s also got some of the quicker hands and better touch on this list. He thrives in the small-area game, using light passes and rapid movements to play in and out of coverage. He has now impressed me wherever I’ve watched him (NCAA, USHL, Five Nations, U18 worlds, world juniors, etc.) as a small but highly involved forward who plays the game with energy and pace, making little skill plays between coverage. He buzzes around the ice and does such a good job releasing from one battle or chance to hunting or getting open for the next one. He’s always moving. He’ll make the soft play to the middle of the ice from the perimeter, or go there to get to rebounds or position himself on screens/tips. He’s excellent in puck protection twisting away from coverage to make things happen along the boards. And he just always seems to play well, no matter the role/usage/stage. And the beauty of Brindley’s game is that while he may prove talented enough to play in a skill role at the NHL level, he’s got the approach/tools to play an effective bottom-six game too. That will limit concerns about his height (he has certainly never played small).

Michigan Wolverines' Gavin Brindley and Adam Fantilli reach for a puck during the Faceoff on the Lake outdoor NCAA men s hockey game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

As we look at the Wolverines in Columbus, it's already quite an impressive list.

It was just eight years ago last Monday, June 26, 2015, when Werenski was drafted eighth overall by the Blue Jackets. When you think of the still-just 25-year-old, the results speak for themselves.

Games Played 416 (5th)
Goals 79 (1st)
Assists 166 (2nd)
Points 245 (1st)
Points Per Game 0.59 (1st)
Even Strength Goals 60 (1st)
Even Strength Points 163 (1st)
Power Play Goals 18 (1st)
Power Play Points 80 (1st)
Overtime Goals 5 (2nd)
Game Winning Goals 12 (T-1st)
Columbus Blue Jackets' Zach Werenski celebrates with teammates on the bench after scoring a goal against the Buffalo Sabres in the second period at Nationwide Arena.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Werenski is already No. 1 among Blue Jackets defensemen in goals, points, points per game, even-strength goals, even-strength points, power-play goals, and power-play points, and tied with Seth Jones for most game-winning goals.

Among the core leaders of the team, Werenski will be a mainstay for the next competitive stretch of Blue Jackets hockey as he enters year two of his six-year extension signed during the summer of 2021.

It's only fitting that the next player to come from up north is the guy that scored 'The Michigan'.

Johnson was the fifth overall draft pick in 2021 and he emerged in a big way coming off his first full NHL season.

Columbus Blue Jackets' Kent Johnson pivots away from San Jose Sharks' Nikolai Knyzhov during overtime at SAP Center at San Jose.
D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

Becoming just the third Blue Jackets rookie to score 40 points (43) in a season when he tallied 16 goals and 27 assists, Johnson somehow didn't even end up with one Calder vote. Werenski had 47 points (11 goals, 36 assists) in 2016-17 and Pierre-Luc Dubois has the franchise record for most points by a rookie with 48 (20 goals, 28 assists).

Columbus Blue Jackets' Nick Blankenburg tosses a stick into the crowd after the against game the Nashville Predators at Nationwide Arena.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Johnson and Blankenburg joined the Blue Jackets at the same time in April 2022 when both signed their first professional contracts. Blankenburg's deal ran through the remainder of the 2021-22 season but the 5-foot-9 undrafted rookie turned heads—and made opponents keep theirs on a swivel—with his all-out energy, in-game impact, and tenacious hits.

Just as Werenski missed most of last season with a torn labrum and separated shoulder, Blankenburg suffered through a fractured ankle—but played on it and scored an empty-net goal in a 4-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers.

It's that type of excitement and determination that Blankenburg has brought in his short time as a Blue Jacket, already endearing himself to the fanbase. He's only played in 43 career games and scored 17 points (five goals, 12 assists), and yet, Blankenburg embodies the prototypical fun, gritty hockey player markets like Columbus eat up.

While the perhaps once unfathomable Michigan connection is brewing and only continuing to thrive in Columbus, the excitement is already off the charts.

Big times are ahead at Nationwide Arena.

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