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The Columbus Blue Jackets were looking like a team that was ready to take its next step just as recently as last summer. In a move that came out of nowhere, the Blue Jackets inked star winger Johnny Gaudreau to a massive seven-year, $68.25 million contract in free agency to pair with offensive threat Patrik Laine on the team's top line.

Just 1.5 seasons later, swinging for the fences to sign Gaudreau hasn't exactly netted the results many expected. Gaudreau tallied 74 points (21 goals and 53 goals) during the 2022-23 season after racking up a career-high 115 points (40 goals and 75 assists) in 2021-22 as a member of the Calgary Flames.

Gaudreau has just 22 points (six goals and 16 assists) in 35 games this season. Laine, meanwhile, has been a healthy scratch and is now out of the lineup with a fractured clavicle.

This is a team that has struggled in recent years as they've missed the playoffs in each of the last three seasons. As a result, Columbus has stockpiled several top first-round draft picks in recent years, but hasn't done the greatest job at developing said talent.

In the last three drafts, the Blue Jackets have landed players like defenseman David Jiricek (No. 6 in 2022) and center Adam Fantilli (No. 3 in 2023). Obviously, the jury is still out on these young prospects, but developing talent certainly has been an issue throughout the team's recent history.

In the early portion of the 2023-24 season, the Blue Jackets have plummeted in the standings as they're last in the Atlantic Division with the second-fewest points (28) in the Eastern Conference. With the team dropping seven of its last 10 games, the Blue Jackets' young duo should be logging significant ice time at this point in the season, but that hasn't exactly been the case.

Obviously, there wasn't another player in the mold of a can't-miss prospect like Connor Bedard, but Fantilli certainly has the skillset to be a star the NHL level. Fantilli is averaging 15:22 of ice time per contest in December, and he has only seen more than 17 minutes of ice time in four of those contests. 

The Blue Jackets center did register 20:10 of ice time in a 3-2 overtime loss against the Washington Capitals on Dec. 21, which led all Columbus forwards. However, in three of the team's last four games, Fantilli has finished with the fifth or sixth-most ice time among the team's forwards.

The former University of Michigan star has even been relegated to the fourth line by Blue Jackets coach Pascal Vincent at various points during the first half of the year.

There's certainly going to be growing pains when it comes to any rookie, but Fantilli has shown all the makings of a talented NHL forward and should be receiving valuable playing time. Entering Wednesday, Fantilli has tallied nine goals and 11 assists in 35 games, which puts him on pace for 47 points (21 goals and 26 assists) for the 2023-24 season. 

Fantilli has displayed outstanding stick-handling and puck control at times as a rookie. For example, the 19-year-old recently made an out-of-this-world play when he stick-handled around a defender, dished a between-the-legs pass, and ultimately ended up blasting home a one-timer past New York Islanders goaltender Semyon Varlamov earlier this month.

Fantilli finished the contest with two goals and an assist in the first multi-point game of his NHL career. With Fantilli spending a great deal of time on the Blue Jackets' top line with Gaudreau and Justin Danforth, he certainly has the ability to compile more games like this, and could be even more dangerous once Laine returns to the lineup.

Much like Fantilli, Jiricek is a highly-regarded prospect that was taken near the top of the NHL Draft. If the Blue Jackets continue to fall out of postseason contention, Jiricek is another player Columbus should be giving big-time minutes to as the season progresses.

The blue line is one area where the Blue Jackets actually have a good amount of depth. The team has Zach Werenski and Erik Gudbranson anchoring their top pairing, while also adding veteran defensemen in the offseason in the form of former Philadelphia Flyers blue-liner Ivan Provorov and former New Jersey Devils defenseman Damon Severson

Jiricek is currently stuck as part of the Blue Jackets' bottom defensive pairing given the veteran depth the team has. 

As the season goes on, Jiricek should be receiving more ice time for him to gain valuable experience in his rookie campaign. As the calendar shifts to 2024, the Blue Jackets are going to need to see if Jiricek is the type of foundational piece the team wants to build around on the back end.

Over his past 10 games, Jiricek has averaged just 14:23 of total ice time and has only logged at least 17 minutes in two of those contests. During the team's 9-4 win against the Sabres on Dec. 19, Jiricek was a healthy scratch despite tallying 18:03 of ice time in his previous game against the Capitals.

Jiricek was on the ice for 15:31 against the Maple Leafs on Dec. 23 in his first game back after being a healthy scratch. That was good for fifth among the six defensemen that suited up for the Blue Jackets in that contest.

Jiricek doesn't possess an insane amount of speed, but he is a very physical defenseman that has a cannon of a shot from the point. While he's only registered one goal in 29 games so far this season, it's clear Jiricek can be an offensive producer since he's also got tremendous vision on top of having a great shot.

The Blue Jackets likely aren't going to be in the playoff conversation as the trade deadline creeps closer. That's even more reason for Columbus to play its young talent, such as Fantilli and Jiricek, as much as humanly possible. 

Getting that consistent time on the ice will be massive for two players embarking on their respective rookie seasons, and it gives the Blue Jackets a bigger sample size of what the two bring to the table. After all, it's possible the Blue Jackets will be selling off some of their veteran assets when the trade deadline rolls around.