Andrew Peeke has finally reached the summit.
The 2016 second-round pick of the Blue Jackets inked his three-year entry-level deal Monday and is set to join the squad for the rest of the season starting with Tuesday's practice ahead of the evening game with Boston at Nationwide Arena.
The defenseman grew up in Florida but has always wanted to be an NHL player, moving to Connecticut to chase the dream as a teenager. After three seasons at Notre Dame, it's now a reality.
"I'm really excited," he said Monday on the drive from South Bend to Columbus. "Obviously it's been a dream of mine since I was a kid to get a chance to be in the NHL. There are some mixed emotions with my Notre Dame season ending Saturday night, but on the other hand, I'm getting this opportunity to join the team and gain some valuable experience. I'm really looking forward to it."
Because he signed an entry-level deal, he will have to stay with Columbus the rest of the season and will complete the first season of his three-year deal immediately.
That will give him a chance to learn from the best, though, and could result in his NHL debut. Columbus is in the midst of a playoff race but could clinch a third straight postseason berth as early as Tuesday, and in the past few years the team hasn't been shy about getting such young players as Gabriel Carlsson and Eric Robinson immediate experience in the final games if the timing is right.
"I'm really excited to join this team," Peeke said. "They're in the playoff hunt, and they're a hot team right now. You saw with all the trades they made, they're going all-in this year, so for me it's learning what their mentality is in the thick of things in this playoff run. For me, it's just soaking everything in and learning what it takes to be a full-time NHL player. If I get my opportunity to play, I'll try to make the most of that."
Peeke has a familiarity with playoff hockey the past three seasons with the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame made the Frozen Four each of the past two seasons, advancing all the way to the national championship game a year ago, and this year was back in a regional final before falling to UMass, meaning Peeke was part of six NCAA tournament victories in a three-year span. In addition, the Irish won the Big Ten tournament each of the past two seasons.
This past year, he was a captain with the Fighting Irish and put up an impressive season. He entered the year hoping to increase his offensive output and did just that along the blue line, going from 14 points each of his first two seasons to a 3-21-24 line this year.
"I think I've just been able to round out my two-way game as a defenseman and being able to have more confidence offensively as well," he said. "I worked on in the last year becoming more physical and making my presence felt more on the ice, and I really felt like I did a great job at that and eliminating plays early. I've been really pleased with my progress so far."
Blue Jackets development coach Chris Clark listed consistency as one of the strengths of Peeke's game. If the CBJ staff had one area in which it wanted to see Peeke improve, it was at asserting his will on the ice given the swift-skating 6-foot-2, 210-pound defenseman has all the physical attributes to do so.
"You see him some games and you see one of the strongest guys in college hockey, and he overmatches guys when he does do it," Clark said. "It's something he can do, and it's something that's not in his nature to be a little bit harder on guys. He has that ability to do that, and when he does do it, he's dominant out there."
Peeke was chosen with the 34th overall pick in the draft by the Jackets and also has international experience as well, having played for Team USA in the prestigious Ivan Hlinka tournament, the World Junior A Challenge and finally the World Junior Championships a year ago.
Add in his Notre Dame years and Peeke brings a wealth of experience to Columbus.
"Notre Dame will always have a place in my heart," he said. "That place has meant so much to me. I can't thank the coaches, my teammates, my teachers and the staff there enough for what they've done for me, to make me a better person. They've changed my life.
"The past three years were some unforgettable times, but I had to make this choice. It was a very tough one, but I think I'm ready for the next step."