Tuesday, December 5, 2023
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Ranking the NHL’s top young cores: Devils lead the way, Senators’ future is bright despite 2023-24 struggles

The Anaheim Ducks have gotten off to a surprising start that has featured shocking wins against the Boston Bruins and Vegas Golden Knights. A great deal of that early season success can be attributed to the fact that the Ducks possess a stable of young players that make the franchise’s future very bright.

Like many teams, the Ducks have built their roster through the NHL Draft. While the Ducks have an abundance of young talent in tow, they’re certainly not the only NHL team that possesses a strong group of young stars on their roster. 

With that in mind, we decided to rank the top eight NHL teams based on their young cores and how they project toward the future. For this exercise, we made the cutoff age 26 to qualify as part of a young core on each respective team.

1. New Jersey Devils

The top of this list was very tough, but it’s hard to pick anyone but the Devils for the No. 1 spot. 

There’s no better young group than what the Devils have to offer. It all starts on the top line with Jack Hughes leading the way. Hughes has developed into one of the top centers across the league, and he’s just 22 years old. The Devils star is coming off of a career-best 99-point season (43 goals and  56 assists), and he already has 20 points (five goals and 15 assists) in 2023-24 despite currently being on the shelf with an upper-body injury.

It’s really the top six forwards that catapulted New Jersey to the top of the list. This is a team in which three of its top six forwards are 25 or younger. Nico Hischier has enjoyed a few sensational seasons to establish himself as a phenomenal center. On most teams that don’t have a Hughes, Hischier is centering the top line. The team also possesses a sensational winger in the form of Jesper Bratt. Bratt is coming off of back-to-back 70-point seasons and is currently second on the team in points (19). 

Oh yeah, and the back end isn’t half bad either for this team. While Dougie Hamilton paces the Devils’ blue-liners, the future is extremely bright with Luke Hughes starting to pay dividends. Hughes skated with the Devils down the stretch last season, but he has really started to show his talent early in the 2023-24 season with seven points (one goals and six assists).

The Devils could have four potential stars on their roster if Luke Hughes continues to develop, making them clearly worthy of the top spot. — Bengel

2. Ottawa Senators

It has not been the smoothest of starts for the Senators this season, but that doesn’t change the fact that their future is still incredibly bright. Ottawa has been hoarding talented prospects for years now, and those players are starting to come into their own at the NHL level.

The young core in Ottawa is led by captain Brady Tkachuk, 24, and Tim Stützle, 21. Those two will be giving opponents fits at the top of the lineup for a very long time. They’ve already combined for 209 goals and 269 assists in their fledgling careers, and both players are under contract for the next five seasons. While those two are the headliners, there are still a number of promising forwards under the age of 25 in Ottawa.

Josh Norris, 25, has already had a 35-goal season and is on pace for another one in 2023-24. Drake Batherson, 25, piled up 62 points last year and has found some nice chemistry with Norris in the top six. Shane Pinto, 22, is currently serving a gambling suspension but scored 20 goals as a rookie in 2022-23. Ridly Greig, 21, has shown flashes of being a strong middle-six grinder.

The Senators are set up front, but the youth on the blue line also stands out as a strength. This is Jakob Chychrun‘s eighth season in the NHL, but he is still only 25 years old. He has proven to be a top-pairing defenseman, and there is a ton of potential around him. Thomas Chabot is only 26, and Jake Sanderson has already earned an eight-year extension at the age of 21.

Now the Sens just need to figure out a way to get a budding star between the pipes. — Nivison

3. Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks would’ve likely earned the top spot if they won the 2023 NHL Draft Lottery and landed Connor Bedard. Still, this is a team that has a ridiculous amount of young talent. 

Out of all of the teams on this list, the Ducks have the largest group within their young core. Anaheim has a roster that includes Mason McTavish (20), Troy Terry (26), Trevor Zegras (22), Leo Carlsson (18), Jamie Drysdale (21) and Pavel Mintyukov (19). 

Terry has produced back-to-back 60-point seasons and developed into a very dangerous goal scorer. In fact, he’s registered 60 combined goals in each of the past two seasons and has proved to be a very valuable winger on the team’s top line. Meanwhile, McTavish is coming off of a 43-point campaign, and he already has 13 points (six goals and seven assists) early in 2023-24. This is just McTavish’s third season, so we’ll need to see more from him to consider him an elite talent. However, at just 20 years old, it’s clear he has what it takes.

While the team didn’t land Bedard in the 2023 NHL Draft, the Ducks have really struck gold in recent years. With their past two first-round picks, the team has selected Carlsson and Mintyukov. Carlsson is already centering the team’s top line, while Mintyukov has latched onto a top-four role on Anaheim’s blue line. Obviously, it’s extremely early to consider those two star-caliber players, but the groundwork is definitely there.

It’s too early to say whether this Ducks core is capable of winning a Stanley Cup one day. However, this is an insane amount of talent in which the majority is age 22 or younger, so the future is definitely bright in Anaheim. — Bengel

4. Buffalo Sabres

Buffalo is poised to become a playoff contender in the very near future — perhaps even this season. That’s due, in large part, to some highly skilled players who are still just approaching their prime.

When it comes to the Sabres, their future begins and ends with Tage Thompson. A first-round pick in 2016, Thompson was a bit of a late bloomer, but he exploded onto the scene in 2021-22. He followed up that breakout with 47 goals and 94 points in 2022-23. Thompson combines his enormous 6-foot-6 frame with some impressive puck skills to become a headache for opposing defenders, and he projects to be one of the best offensive weapons in the league for a while.

Out of all the teams on this list, the Sabres might have the best setup on the back end. Between Rasmus Dahlin and Owen Power, Buffalo has two former first-round picks on its blue line. Based on what we’ve seen from the two players so far, they might both be in the Norris Trophy conversation for a while. Dahlin took a step closer to elite territory with 73 points and impressive underlying numbers last year, and Power might be on that same track this year.

Let’s not forget 22-year-old Dylan Cozens, who found the back of the net 31 times in 2022-23. How about JJ Peterka? Last season, at the age of 20, he tallied 32 points in 77 games and already has five goals in 13 contests this year.

The real kicker for Buffalo might be Devon Levi. The Sabres have been searching for a permanent answer in goal for a while now, and Levi might be that guy. It’s still too early to tell for sure whether the 21-year-old has what it takes to be a full-time starter, but he has had some impressive starts in his young career. — Nivison

5. Arizona Coyotes

It’s been a few down seasons for the Coyotes with the team missing the playoffs in each of the last three campaigns. However, the Coyotes are slowly but surely improving their roster with an influx of young talent.

The Coyotes may not have as huge of a young group as some teams, but there’s plenty of reason for optimism. It all starts with star winger Clayton Keller, who has realized his potential after an up-and-down start to his career. Keller is a sensational playmaker who has racked up 63 and 83 points, respectively, over the past two seasons. The 25-year-old has become the face of the franchise and is already on pace for a 76-point campaign in 2023-24.

Arizona also possesses a pair of potential star centers in the form of Matias Maccelli and Logan Cooley. Maccelli, 23, is coming off of a rookie season in which he tallied 49 points (11 goals and 38 assists). The Coyotes young center wasn’t named a Calder Trophy finalist as the league’s top rookie in 2022-23, but he definitely had a case. Arizona also may have hit a home run with Logan Cooley, who the franchise selected with the No. 3 pick in the 2022 NHL Draft. While it’s extremely early, Cooley has tremendous puck-handling skills and already has eight points (one goal and seven assists) as a rookie this year.

It may not be a huge young core, but there’s a ton of playmaking ability within the group. The Coyotes have failed to reach the 30-win mark in each of the last three seasons, but this assortment of star power could help the team get there sooner rather than later. — Bengel

6. Vancouver Canucks

Quality over quantity is the key here. The Canucks don’t necessarily have many young stars under the age of 26, but the ones they do have are bona fide superstars. That is more than enough to get them on this list, and there is a case to be made that they should be higher.

Let’s start with defenseman Quinn Hughes, the 24-year-old captain of the Canucks. Hughes has been the talk of the town through the first couple weeks of the 2023-24 season, and for good reason. Hughes seems to have taken his game to another level, certainly from an offensive perspective. He has five goals, which is just three shy of his career high with 69 games remaining, and he’s on pace for 132 points while putting up some sterling underlying numbers.

Speaking of sterling numbers, No. 1 center Elias Pettersson is the other young franchise cornerstone in Vancouver. Pettersson just turned 25, and he already has 143 goals and 347 points in 338 games. Pettersson is an elite talent in the offensive end, and he can take over a game with his playmaking ability or his filthy release. Last year, Pettersson eclipsed the 100-point mark for the first time in his career, and he currently leads the NHL in assists with 17. There just aren’t many players like him in the league.

Nils Höglander, 22, is an interesting young player, but make no mistake about it. Hughes and Pettersson are the ones driving the bus for this team, and franchises can search for years to land one player like them, let alone two. That puts pressure on the Canucks to win big while they are both in their prime. –– Nivison

7. Carolina Hurricanes

When you like of a young core, the Hurricanes are probably not the first team that comes to mind. Still, this is a very talented group that still has an abundance of youth when it comes to its forwards.

It all starts at the center position with Sebastian Aho leading the way. Aho, 26, has registered at least 66 points in three of his last four seasons, and he has become arguably the most consistent goal scorer on the Hurricanes roster. In fact, he’s racked up 73 goals over his last two full seasons.

Winger Andrei Svechnikov is also a big-time offensive producer for Carolina, and he was sorely missed throughout the team’s playoff run a season ago. Svechnikov suffered a season-ending knee injury in March, rendering him unable to contribute in the Hurricanes’ trip to the Easter Conference Final. Svechnikov has registered 30-plus assists in three of his past four seasons, so he would’ve made a significant difference in that series.

Seth Jarvis (21), Jesperi Kotkaniemi (23), and Martin Necas (24) also bring a ton of playmaking prowess to the Hurricanes’ forward group. Kotkaniemi continues to develop into a top center after being traded from the Canadiens a few seasons ago. He actually leads the Hurricanes in points (12), while Jarvis and Necas are tied for the second-most goals on the team with five apiece. 

Finally, the team could have a franchise goaltender in between the pipes in Pyotr Kochetkov. Kochetkov’s career has been up-and-down thus far, but he produced a solid campaign filling in for Frederik Andersen during the 2022-23 campaign. The 24-year-old registered a 12-7-0 record, a 2.44 goals-against-average and a .909 save percentage in 24 games a season ago. While he’s struggled in limited action in 2023-24, the talent is definitely there.

The Hurricanes have been tabbed by many, including myself, as potential Stanley Cup contenders. If they’re able to realize that potential, this young group is going to be a big reason for that success. — Bengel

8. Columbus Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets have been stocking their cupboard over the last few drafts, and that has led to a fairly well-stocked cupboard in Columbus. While those prospects haven’t broken out at the NHL level, there is still plenty to like across the roster.

First and foremost, Adam Fantilli looks like a stud through his first 13 games. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2023 NHL Draft, Fantilli has two goals and five assists on the season. If the early returns are any indication, Fantilli will be the No. 1 center in Columbus for a decade or more. Fantilli alone is enough to warrant the Blue Jackets being on this list, but they still have some intriguing prospects behind him.

The Jackets also have two more first-round centers in Cole Sillinger and Kent Johnson. Sillinger, 20, had an encouraging rookie campaign in 2021-22 but took somewhat of a step back last year. Johnson, 21, tallied 40 points in 79 games last season but has already been sent down after being a healthy scratch this year. It’s important to remember that both players are still extremely young and development has its ups and downs. If even one of Sillinger or Johnson clicks, the Blue Jackets will have a great one-two punch down the middle.

On the blue line, former No. 6 overall pick David Jiricek stands out as a possible building block for the Blue Jackets. Jiricek is now 10 games into the season, and he’s displayed some positive signs that he might be able to stick with the NHL club. If he does stay with Columbus all year, the 19-year-old defenseman will be fun to watch as he continues his development. — Nivison

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