Fantilli Sillinger

Maybe it’s just youthful enthusiasm, but the youngest members of the Blue Jackets look around and see a bright future in Columbus.

There’s Cole Sillinger, just 20 years old but three years into his NHL career and playing his best hockey at the end of the season. There’s Adam Fantilli, all of 19 and starting to show why he was such a coveted draft pick at No. 3 overall. There’s David Jiricek and Kent Johnson, each still just 21 years old and possessing a world of talent.

That’s just a handful of the names the team has drafted in the past few years in the hope of building an NHL juggernaut.

And it’s probably not just youthful enthusiasm, too. Prospect analysts around the league have ranked the Blue Jackets’ prospect pool as one of the best in the NHL, and it’s a group that’s been growing over the past few seasons in the hope it blossoms into a contender.

That’s why when someone like Sillinger looks around, he has a lot of excitement about what could happen as the Blue Jackets mature.

“How could you not, right?” Sillinger said. “We have a lot of good young talent, we have a lot of good players, we have a lot of good skill. If you look at our lineup up and down, the veterans that we’re surrounded by as young guys, the guys in Cleveland, how could you not be excited to be a part of this group?

“We all want to make it work and get to the level we know we can be at.”

There’s no doubt the past few seasons have been frustrating for the Blue Jackets and their fans, and this year’s finish at the bottom of the Eastern Conference wasn’t fun to live through. But the team’s veterans say they’re starting to see a culture form in the locker room, and the team did make some steps this season when it comes to the business of winning games.

Unfortunately, doing so at the world’s highest level isn’t always easy, and you can’t skip any steps. The belief is the payoff will be worth it in the end when those talented youngsters come into their own.

Columbus dressed 11 players this season who were age 22 or younger as of Feb. 1, a list that includes five first-round draft picks in Yegor Chinakhov (2020), Johnson (2021), Sillinger (2021), Jiricek (2022) and Fantilli (2023). Mikael Pyyhtia (22 years old), Jet Greaves (22), Cameron Butler (21), James Malatesta (20), Luca Del Bel Belluz (20) and Gavin Brindley (19) also comprise the list.

There’s a lot of talent in that group alone, and it doesn’t include recent first-round picks Corson Ceulemans (2021) and WHL star Denton Mateychuk (2022), plus such prospects as Stanislav Svozil, Jordan Dumais and others who have loads of potential to make an impact at the NHL level.

Add in 23-year-olds Kirill Marchenko, Dmitri Voronkov and Adam Boqvist and the Jackets boast one of the NHL’s most impressive groups of 23-and-under players. And those who are part of the pool are excited to see what that group can accomplish together as they gain experience in the league.

“We have a great group of guys here – the veterans, the young guys, everyone in between,” Fantilli said. “It’s a lot of fun. You have guys like Silly, like KJ, like (Nick) Blankenburg, we called up Malatesta, Del Bel, Brinds – all of these guys are young and skilled and excited to become pros and to establish themselves. I think we have a lot of guys that have a lot to prove in this league and are going to work tirelessly to do that.”

With that in mind, the Blue Jackets think a turnaround in the standings could come sooner rather than later.

“I think for next year our team is going to make big steps,” said Alex Nylander, still pretty young himself at age 25 after an impressive CBJ debut this year. “When everybody is healthy and we have the whole team, I think we’re gonna be making really good progress. We have a lot of good young talent, but at the same time we have a good veteran core that mixes in pretty good actually. I think the team is gonna be making big steps and become a better team already next year.”

Time will tell how it all works out – potential is just that until it becomes reality – but the Blue Jackets young players are looking forward to what might be next.

“I think the guys in the room, we really believe that we can be something special,” Johnson said. “Hopefully it’s sooner rather than later, but I know we have to do it right. We really believe in the future here.”

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