2022-23 Central Division Rankings: Forwards

In the third and final piece of my Central Division Rankings series, it’s time to focus on the forwards. The Central Division is top-heavy on talent and features a few key players who could be on their way out by the time the 2023 trade deadline approaches.

Central Division Rankings: Forwards Nathan MacKinnon, Patrick Kane, and Kirill Kaprizov
Nathan MacKinnon, Patrick Kane, and Kirill Kaprizov (The Hockey Writers)

Please keep in mind that these rankings are based on each team’s projected forward lines for the 2022-23 season. Fourth-line roles are now more varied and based on matchups, however, I’m going to focus on each team’s projected top-nine.

8. Arizona Coyotes

Clayton KellerTravis BoydNick Schmaltz
Nick RitchieBarrett HaytonZack Kassian
Lawson CrouseNick BjugstadChristian Fischer

The Arizona Coyotes are in the midst of a rebuild, so it’s no surprise to see them ranked at the bottom of this list. Even still, they have a few young forwards that are worth keeping an eye on. Clayton Keller. 23, led the team in goals (28), points (63), and was first among their forward group in average time on ice (ATOI) at 20:08 per game last season. Center Nick Schmaltz, 25, was right behind Keller in goals (23), points (59) and ATOI (18:15), while former first-round pick Barrett Hayton (2018, fifth overall), just 22 years old, registered 60 games in his first full NHL season and figures to be in their top-six in 2022-23.

Clayton Keller Arizona Coyotes
Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

After those three, the rest of their top-nine is a mix of veteran bottom-six players like Zack Kassian, Nick Ritchie, and Nick Bjugstad. Each of these players will likely be available around the trade deadline as the Coyotes continue to build for the future by recouping draft picks and young talent.

7. Chicago Blackhawks

Andreas AthanasiouMax DomiPatrick Kane
Taylor RaddyshJonathan ToewsTyler Johnson
Philipp KurashevLukas ReichelColin Blackwell

If it weren’t for Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, I would have ranked them behind Arizona. But with those two, the Chicago Blackhawks still have two All-Star-caliber players in their top six. Kane was 14th in the NHL in points last season with 92 (26 goals, 66 assists). Toews, on the other hand, had his worst season as a pro (12 goals and 25 assists in 71 games) and hasn’t kept it a secret that he doesn’t wish to be part of a rebuild. He and Kane should be highly sought after come the trade deadline in February 2023.

Related: Central Division Rankings: Defensemen

If the Blackhawks struggle like many suggest they will, other players like Andreas Athanasiou and Max Domi could be attractive trade deadline pieces since both are on one-year contracts. Trading any one of Kane, Toews, Athanasiou, and Domi would net the organization plenty of additional young talent to build around. They have youth and potential in their top nine with Taylor Raddysh (24), Philipp Kurashev (22), and Lukas Reichel (20) looking like they will stick with the big club.

6. Dallas Stars

Jason Robertson*Roope HintzJoe Pavelski
Mason MarchmentTyler SeguinDenis Gurianov
Jamie BennRadek FaksaLuke Glendening
*Jason Robertson, a restricted free agent, remains unsigned

The Dallas Stars’ top-nine forwards are a confusing bunch. They’ve got a legitimate young superstar in Jason Robertson (41 goals, 38 assists in 74 games), but as a restricted free agent, he’s holding out for a long-term extension, or even a trade, rather than signing a bridge deal. He has yet to join the Stars at camp or play in the preseason. Joe Pavelski is still a top-six player, even at 38 years old (81 points in 82 games in 2021-22), and Roope Hintz has turned himself into a legitimate top-six player as well.

Jason Robertson Dallas Stars
Jason Robertson, Dallas Stars (Photo by Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Stars’ biggest issues are with contracts and lack of production from their two highest-paid players: Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. Both are carrying cap hits north of $9 million in 2022-23 and have seen their numbers drop in each of the last three seasons. Having them account for over $19 million in cap space (23.45% of the total $82.5 million cap) is likely the main reason Robertson remains unsigned. Without Robertson, Dallas will find it very difficult to generate offense.

5. Minnesota Wild

Kirill KaprizovRyan HartmanMats Zuccarello
Matthew BoldyMarco RossiFrederick Gaudreau
Marcus FolignoJoel Eriksson EkJordan Greenway*
*Jordan Greenway will start the season on the injured list

Kirill Kaprizov is the only real highlight in the Minnesota Wild forward group. In 2021-22, he scored 47 goals (tied for fifth in the NHL) and 108 total points (fourth in the NHL). His linemate, Mats Zuccarello, also had a great season (79 points in 70 games). The “GREEF” Line of Jordan Greenway, Joel Erikson Ek, and Marcus Foligno was the best defensive forward line in the league in 2021-22, giving up an average of 0.71 goals per 60 minutes.

The salary cap forced them to deal a young star this summer in Kevin Fiala. It weakened the overall offensive ceiling of the group, as the team doesn’t offer up proven scoring potential after Kaprizov and Zuccarello. They’re also relatively weak up the middle, even with veteran center Ryan Hartman having a career year in 2021-22. They’re betting big on Kaprizov and former first-round pick Marco Rossi to keep this offense afloat.

4. Nashville Predators

Filip ForsbergMikael GranlundMatt Duchene
Nino NiederreiterRyan JohansenEeli Tolvanen
Tanner JeannotCole SissonsYakov Trenin

Thanks to a slow start to the 2021-22 season, the forwards of the Nashville Predators were very easy to overlook in terms of quality. But by the time the season ended, their offensive unit gelled enough to get them into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Led by Filip Forsberg (42 goals, 84 points), Matt Duchene (43 goals, 86 points), and a resurgent Ryan Johansen (26 goals, 63 points), this group may have gotten better this offseason with the addition of Nino Niederreiter.

With Tanner Jeannot, Cole Sissons, and Yakov Trenin making up the third line, they would likely be the most physical forward line in the division as the three combined for 697 total hits last season. The Predators’ top-six is solid and should be a high-performing group again in 2022-23.

3. Winnipeg Jets

Kyle ConnorMark ScheifeleNikolaj Ehlers
Cole PerfettiPierre-Luc DuBoisBlake Wheeler
Jansen HarkinsAdam LowryMason Appleton

The Winnipeg Jets, despite their defensive shortcomings, are a very good offensive team. Kyler Connor had been a good player until last season when he broke out to the tune of 47 goals (tied for fifth in the NHL) and 46 assists, good for a team and career-high 93 points. Mark Scheifele remained a solid point-per-game player in 2021-22 (70 points in 67 games), while Pierre-Luc DuBois and Nikolaj Ehlers are fine top-six wingers who have yet to reach their ceiling. Rookie Cole Perfetti will try to stick with the big club, giving them five solid-to-good forwards in their top-six.

Related: Central Division Rankings: Goalie Tandems

Stripped of his captaincy under new head coach Rick Bowness, Blake Wheeler seems to be nearing the end of his time in Winnipeg. At 36 years old, he’s still a solid top-nine forward (60 points in 65 games), but he carries a hefty cap hit for this season and next ($8.25 million) and a buyout may be looming. Adam Lowry and Mason Appleton are fine middle-six forwards to round out this group. They should be strong again in 2022-23.

2. St. Louis Blues

Brandon SaadRyan O’ReillyJordan Kyrou
Pavel BuchnevichRobert ThomasVladimir Tarasenko
Ivan BarbashevBrayden SchennLogan Brown

Even with the loss of beloved forward David Perron, the St. Louis Blues are still returning eight of their nine 20-goal scorers from 2021-22. It’s hard to pinpoint one or two players to highlight the offense, as they don’t have a true “superstar” in this group. Instead, as the Blues generally have done in the past, this team will again rely on its depth to be among the NHL’s top scoring teams (third in goals last season with 309).

Robert Thomas St. Louis Blues
Robert Thomas, St. Louis Blues (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou are emerging young stars, captain Ryan O’Reilly is still the same 200-foot player, Vladimir Tarasenko and Pavel Buchnevich are both good for 30-plus goals, and Brandon Saad and Brayden Schenn remain solid veterans who perform their roles well on a nightly basis. There really isn’t a weak spot in this top-nine and they should be among the league’s best again this season.

1. Colorado Avalanche

Gabriel Landeskog*Nathan MacKinnonMikko Rantanen
Artturi LehkonenAlex NewhookValeri Nichushkin
Ben MeyersJT CompherEvan Rodrigues
*Gabriel Landeskog will start the season on the injured list

The first line of the Colorado Avalanche of Gabriel Landeskog (59 points in 51 games), Nathan MacKinnon (92 points), and Mikko Rantanen (88 points) is without a doubt the top forward line in the NHL. Losing Nazem Kadri to free agency will allow the team to promote 21-year-old and former first-round pick Alex Newhook into their top-six mix. At the same time, Valeri Nichushkin’s strong play last season earned him an eight-year contract extension this summer.

Landeskog dealt with knee injuries last season and offseason knee surgery will force him to miss the beginning of the season as the Avs defend their Cup title. Losing Kadri and Andre Burakovsky will force the team to rely more on role players like Artturi Lehkonen, JT Compher, and the newly-signed Evan Rodrigues (43 points in 82 games in 2021-22 with the Pittsburgh Penguins). The MacKinnon line will be leaned on heavily in 2022-23, but as long as he plays up to his standards, this should once again be the best group of forwards in the Central Division.

Recapping the Central Division Forward Rankings by Team

  1. Colorado Avalanche
  2. St. Louis Blues
  3. Winnipeg Jets
  4. Nashville Predators
  5. Minnesota Wild
  6. Dallas Stars
  7. Chicago Blackhawks
  8. Arizona Coyotes

Do you agree with these rankings? Am I too high or too low on a team’s forwards? Let me know in the comments section below!

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