NHL Core Strength: How Central Division teams found their best players

The Central Division contains a mix of Stanley Cup contenders and teams in deep rebuilds, with a few squads in between.

This is Part 3 of a series examining how NHL teams acquired their top players and what we can learn from their team-building efforts.

For the purposes of this series, we'll look at the top three forwards, the top two defensemen, and the starting goalie on each squad for 2023-24. That can get a bit subjective, but when in doubt, 2022-23 playing time and point totals (or salary) all work as handy tiebreakers.

Previous articles: Atlantic, Metropolitan

The Central Division is arguably the NHL's weakest group, but it contains plenty of interesting squads. While the Winnipeg Jets, St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators are in the league's squishy middle, the two teams at the top of the division — the Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars — are true-blue Stanley Cup contenders.

The Minnesota Wild are also a team worth monitoring due to the playoff curse they're experiencing, and the Arizona Coyotes are a trainwreck NHL fans can't seem to look away from. The Chicago Blackhawks were in a sad state last season, but Connor Bedard has breathed new life into the franchise.

Here's a rundown of how the teams in the Central put together their cores:

Colorado Avalanche

Core players

  • F Nathan MacKinnon (Drafted 1st overall in 2013)

  • F Mikko Rantanen (Drafted 10th overall in 2015)

  • F Valeri Nichushkin (Signed as a free agent in 2019, extended in 2020 and 2022)

  • D Cale Maker (Drafted 4th overall in 2017)

  • D Devon Toews (Trade acquisition in 2020, extended in 2020)

  • G Alexandar Georgiev (Trade acquisition in 2022, extended in 2022)

What we can learn: Colorado has built around picks at the top of the draft who've become elite players — including Gabriel Landeskog (2nd overall in 2011), who's omitted here thanks to his season-ending injury — with some savvy moves around the edges.

Nichushkin has become a far more impactful player since arriving in Colorado and the same could be said for Toews. Grabbing Georgiev from the New York Rangers also seems to be a prudent trade after he just had an excellent first season as a full-time starter.

Nailing any top-10 picks you get and then making smart moves to construct a roster is a pretty good way to build a sustainable contender — and that's precisely what the Avalanche are.

The Colorado Avalanche won the 2021-22 Stanley Cup largely on the strength of their stars. (Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)
The Colorado Avalanche won the 2021-22 Stanley Cup largely on the strength of their stars. (Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)

Dallas Stars

Core players

  • F Jason Robertson (Drafted 39th overall in 2017)

  • F Roope Hintz (Drafted 49th overall in 2015)

  • F Jamie Benn (Drafted 129th in 2007)

  • D Miro Heiskanen (Drafted 3rd overall in 2017)

  • D Esa Lindell (Drafted 74th overall 2012)

  • G Jake Oettinger (Drafted 26th overall 2017)

What we can learn: The Stars have been one of the NHL's best scouting teams in recent years and their 2017 class looks nothing short of incredible.

There's not much for other teams to learn, other than the fact that it's probably worth sinking a few extra bucks into your scouting department because the ability to hit beyond the first round is a major differentiator.

Dallas nailed the one pick they've had at the top of the draft lately with Heiskanen, and veterans like Joe Pavelski, Tyler Seguin, Matt Duchene and Evegeni Dadonov have helped fill out a well-rounded roster. If Wyatt Johnson continues to build on a strong rookie year he could make the Stars' drafting track record even more impressive.

Minnesota Wild

Core players

  • F Kirill Kaprizov (Drafted 135th overall in 2015)

  • F Mats Zuccarello (Signed as a free agent 2019)

  • F Joel Eriksson Ek (Drafted 20th overall in 2015)

  • D Jared Spurgeon (Signed as a free agent in 2010, extended in 2013, 2015 and 2019)

  • D Jonas Brodin (Drafted 10th overall in 2011)

  • G Filip Gustavsson (Trade acquisition in 2012, extended in 2023)

What we can learn: The Wild have been a bit of a punchline in recent seasons for their inability to escape the first round, but they deserve credit for unearthing quality talent overlooked by other squads.

Minnesota landed a superstar in the fifth round of the draft with Kaprizov, got Spurgeon for nothing when he slipped through the New York Islanders' fingers and snagged Gustavsson from a goalie-needy Senators team for a middling Cam Talbot.

Not many teams have had that kind of success finding foundational pieces in unorthodox ways, but the Wild haven't been able to fill out the rest of their roster as effectively.

Winnipeg Jets

Core players

  • F Kyle Connor (Drafted 17th overall in 2015)

  • F Mark Scheifele (Drafted 7th overall in 2011)

  • F Nikolaj Ehlers (Drafted 9th overall in 2014)

  • D Joshua Morrissey (Drafted 13th overall in 2013)

  • D Neal Pionk (Trade acquisition in 2019, extended in 2019 and 2021)

  • G Connor Hellebuyck (Drafted 130th overall in 2012)

What we can learn: The Jets are a tough team to compare to others because it's not a free-agent destination and needs to draft well to compete.

Winnipeg has been able to consistently turn first-rounders into strong NHL contributors, and getting Hellebuyck as a late-round gem has helped provide a backbone for the team in recent seasons.

Most teams would want to supplement their core with more free agents than the Jets have been able to, but the franchise has done well with the cards it's been dealt.

Nashville Predators

Core players

  • F Ryan O'Reilly (Signed as a free agent 2023)

  • F Filip Forsberg (Trade acquisition in 2013, extended in 2016 and 2022)

  • F Cody Glass (Trade acquisition in 2021, extended in 2023)

  • D Roman Josi (Drafted 38th overall in 2008)

  • D Ryan McDonagh (Trade acquisition 2022)

  • G Juuse Saros (Drafted 99th in 2013)

What we can learn: The Predators are in an odd place from a competitive standpoint and they don't have a particularly top-heavy roster. That means there are a number of players who could be considered their third most important forward or number two defenseman.

Getting Josi and Saros where they did in the draft was a coup for the Predators, but they've built around those players in a haphazard way. The result is a team that hasn't won a playoff round since 2017-18.

Nashville's on-ice product has been respectable but uninspired lately. That doesn't seem likely to improve in the near future due to a roster construction that lacks clear direction and has imported more quantity than quality.

St. Louis Blues

Core players

  • F Jordan Kyrou (Drafted 35th overall in 2016)

  • F Robert Thomas (Drafted 20th overall in 2017)

  • F Brayden Schenn (Trade acquisition in 2017, extended in 2019)

  • D Justin Faulk (Trade acquisition in 2019, extended in 2019)

  • D Colton Parayko (Drafted 86th overall in 2012)

  • G Jordan Binnington (Drafted 88th overall in 2011)

What we can learn: The Blues have quietly been one of the best drafting teams in the NHL during the salary-cap era. That said, the roster is in a strange state.

It's full of players who are older, but shouldn't be in a deep decline. That veteran group simply isn't quite good enough, though.

This club needs some serious re-tooling to contend once again, and while the franchise deserves its flowers for its impressive drafting record, an 81-point campaign in 2022-23 proves it hasn't supplemented the homegrown players well enough.

Arizona Coyotes

Core players

  • F Clayton Keller (Drafted 7th overall in 2016)

  • F Barrett Hayton (Drafted 5th overall in 2018)

  • F Nick Schmaltz (Trade acquisition in 2018, extended in 2019)

  • D J.J. Moser (Drafted 60th overall in 2021)

  • D Matt Dumba (Signed as a free agent in 2023)

  • G Karel Vejmelka (Signed as a free agent in 2021)

What we can learn: Realistically there isn't too much to be learned from the Coyotes franchise in almost any respect — other than as a cautionary tale. The team has been far better at accumulating draft picks than NHL talent lately, though top-10 picks Keller and Hayton are undoubtedly good pieces.

When Arizona uses its massive stash of picks in one way or another, we'll have a better idea of how they're building.

Chicago Blackhawks

Core players

  • F Connor Bedard (Drafted 1st overall in 2023)

  • F Taylor Hall (Trade acquisition in 2023)

  • F Lukas Reichel (Drafted 17th overall in 2020)

  • D Kevin Korchinski (Drafted 7th overall in 2022)

  • D Seth Jones (Trade acquisition in 2021, extended in 2021)

  • G Petr Mrázek (Trade acquisition 2022)

What we can learn: The Blackhawks are like the Coyotes in that their core doesn't really exist yet. It will be built in the years to come — and it will be promising with Bedard at the centre.

There will come a time to evaluate whether Chicago is capitalizing on the opportunity that grabbing a generational prospect through the draft affords, but we're a couple of years away from rendering any judgment on that.