It’s been a couple of years since the highly touted Canadian prospect Adam Fantilli made the decision to go south to the USHL rather than play back home.
A large part of that decision was to remain NCAA eligible, officially committing to the University of Michigan last August. But he doesn't discount the impact his family and the NHL draft played in the decision.
“Getting to play with your brother is something really special to me so following him to Chicago was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made," Fantilli said. "I also have a late birthday so when it comes to the NHL draft, getting two years of junior experience under my belt before heading to college was a big deal for me knowing I can play my draft year in college."
As a 16-year-old rookie in the USHL, the Nobelton, Ont. earned second-team all-rookie honors after finishing tied for sixth among all rookie scorers with 36 points in 49 games. The only 2023 NHL draft-eligible player and youngest among all of the top-15 rookie scorers, Fantilli was proving that the hype was warranted.
Despite his youth, he was able to leverage the offensive tools such as his shot to their full advantage. On top of that, he was able to utilize the physical stature he has to play against players often three years his senior. Fantilli showed progress throughout the season with the Steel, peaking right at the perfect time as the team went into the playoffs.
Helping lead his team to the Clark Cup Championship as a rookie, Fantilli collected eight goals in eight games en route to winning the Clark Cup MVP.
“Watching our big dogs go, from Matthew Coronato, Matthew Samoskevich, Sean Farrell, Josh Doan and the rest of those guys dominate all regular season, it was just nice to be able to take some of the burden off them and help those guys get a well-deserved championship," Fantilli said.
This season, Fantilli has taken his game to a whole new level. With 35 goals and 67 points thus far, Fantilli is on pace to have the most productive season for a D-1 player in USHL history among non-NTDP players. The Steel forward leads the entire USHL in goals, having already eclipsed Kieffer Bellows’ draft minus one record for USHL players.
The next stop? The University of Michigan.
“Honestly, I didn’t even know about half of that!” a smirking Fantilli said about his stats. “Obviously it means a lot. Records are there and everybody is chasing them, so it definitely means a lot but that’s not the main focus. I want to help ensure that we’re the one seed and get that first-round bye to have the best chance to do what we did last year.”
Fantilli blends skill and power as good or better than any prospect in recent memory, including the loaded 2023 draft class that he will be a part of. Whether it’s his ability to work off the boards or pull off a flashy play in traffic, the young Canadian has been a sight to behold in the USHL for NHL scouts. He checks just about every box that teams look for in a high-end NHL center.
Fantilli is a handful to deal with for opposing defenders. He's a good skater who accelerates to speed quickly and has the ability to seemingly hit the boosters at will to beat defenders. As a 6-foot-2 center, he does an excellent job of protecting the puck and getting to high danger as well.
When you dive into the numbers and where he generates offense, Fantilli’s willingness to use his tools to attack the home plate area is borderline ridiculous. Fantilli has 274 shots on goal this season to lead the USHL. Only 26 of them come from above the faceoff circles (9.4 percent). On the flip side, he has taken 166 shots from the home plate area (60.5 percent).
Another element of Fantilli’s game that has allowed him to quietly have a historic USHL season is the fact that he masterfully changes the angle on his shot with quick hands and excellent puck manipulation. Whether pulling a puck into his body, opening his hips to create a passing option, or the classic curl and drag shot akin to Auston Matthews, the USHL’s leading goal scorer has become the most lethal offensive player in the league and he is just 17 years old.
As a center, the defensive side of the game is important, especially as he moves from junior to college and eventually pro hockey. Fantilli has made quite a bit of progress as a defensive center. He uses his size quite well, engaging physically along the boards and coming out of scrums with possession at a high rate.
As with any young player, finding consistency will be key but the maturation as a defensive presence has been a welcome sight and has helped him generate offense through his defensive acumen. The more he is forcing turnovers or disrupting play, the more often he is able to push the play towards the offensive zone and create chances.
Any high-end prospect knows the smart play needs to come before the highlight-reel one. That’s what sets Fantilli apart from so many prospects at this stage of his career. He's focused on finding an advantage mentally on top of his physical prowess.
The excitement for the 2023 draft is tough to ignore. Connor Bedard and Matvei Michkov have both garnered headlines because of what they have been able to do in their respective D-1 season. What Fantilli has done in the USHL has been nothing short of phenomenal as well. It just goes to show you that the USHL continues to be one of the most underrated developmental leagues in the world.
“Bedard is obviously a special player. He can play up and down the ice," Fantilli said. "We had some great conversations and I’m excited to go keep going head-to-head with him. What Michkov has done between the KHL and Russian junior league has been absolutely crazy, even looking at the U-18s. Both of them are incredibly talented players and I look forward to going head to head with them next year."
The more Fantilli excels and develops, the more reasonable it is to look at next year’s “Big Two” as a “Big Three”. Whether he finds a way to have a monster year and supplement one of those two at the draft or not, it’s safe to say that the NHL team that drafts Fantilli will be getting a player who could alter their future in a way often seen from surefire first overall picks.
It just so happens that Fantilli is one of three first overall pick-caliber players next year. It’s going to be fun.