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NHL

Ranking the NHL’s best locked-in young core talent groups

Team rankings come in all shapes and forms. We analyzed the rosters of all 31 teams to determine which franchise is best suited for the future behind a locked-in young core.

How is that determined? Given the average age of NHL players to begin the 2017-18 season was a shade over 27, we considered only players who are 27 or younger.

The rankings also factored in length of contracts — the longer the better for young talent — and accounted only for players who are inked for at least the next three seasons. For example, the New Jersey Devils might look strong at first glance, but Taylor Hall and 2017 No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier are both signed for just two more seasons, leaving a lot up in the air.

Here are the top locked-in young cores in the NHL, when considering age and contract status.


Core: Connor McDavid (Center, 21 years old, $12.5 million AAV, through 2025-26); Leon Draisaitl (Center, 22 years old, $8.5 million AAV through 2024-25); Oscar Klefbom (Defense, 24 years old, $4.167 million AAV through 2022-23)

The Oilers might require some refinement before they ultimately win, but it’s hard to argue with the core they have drafted and subsequently locked in for the next five to eight years. Then again, it’s not exactly high-level managing to commit to a player like McDavid when given the opportunity. However, the pledge to McDavid’s sidekick, Draisaitl, is a nice touch, and Klefbom’s low cap hit will keep the salary cap at bay for some time, which lands the Oilers here at No. 1. And that’s before you even mention that the Oilers also just signed their 2018 first-rounder, Evan Bouchard, adding another young asset on the blue line.

Core: Filip Forsberg (Left wing, 23 years old, $6 million AAV through 2021-22); Ryan Johansen (Center, 25 years old, $8 million AAV through 2024-25); Viktor Arvidsson (Right wing, 25 years old, $4.25 million AAV through 2022-23); Juuse Saros (Goaltender, 23 years old, $1.5 million AAV through 2020-21)

This is the most balanced roster in the NHL. While the Predators boast plenty of stars seasoned and in their prime (Roman Josi and P.K. Subban headline the league’s best group of defensemen), the first-line talent highlights why Nashville will be a Stanley Cup contender until further notice. Arvidsson’s contract is a steal, and Forsberg is probably underpaid as well. Saros is currently the No. 2 goalie for Nashville, but locking up the team’s goalie of the future for three more seasons gives some protection in the crease if Pekka Rinne leaves when he becomes a unrestricted free agent after next season. And if 19-year-old rookie Eeli Tolvanen breaks out next season, it only further cements the Predators’ standing here.

Core: Vladimir Tarasenko (Right wing, 26 years old, $7.5 million AAV, through 2022-23); Ryan O’Reilly (Center, 27 years old, $7.5 million AAV, through 2022-23); Jaden Schwartz (Left wing, 26 years old, $5.4 million AAV through 2020-21)

No team improved more this offseason than the Blues. General manager Doug Armstrong willed the Blues onto this list with the addition of O’Reilly, a terrific two-way center who should make his presence felt in St. Louis for the next five seasons. Combined with the pure skill of Tarasenko (whose 149 goals since the beginning of the 2014-15 season trail only Alex Ovechkin) and the potential of Schwartz (should he stay healthy), this group could push the Blues over the playoff hump.

Core: John Tavares (Center, 27 years old, $11 million AAV through 2024-25); Nazem Kadri (Center, 27 years old, $4.6 million AAV through 2021-22); Morgan Rielly (Defense, 24 years old, $5 million AAV through 2021-22)

Tavares picked his hometown Maple Leafs in free agency in large part because he believed in the team’s young core. It’s hard to place Toronto this low knowing the talent on the roster, but until the extensions for Mitch Marner, William Nylander and especially Auston Matthews are done, the Leafs are straddled here. Here, however, is not a bad place to be at all.

Core: Mark Scheifele (Center, 25 years old, $6.125 million AAV, through 2023-24); Nikolaj Ehlers (Left wing, 22 years old, $6 million AAV, through 2024-25); Connor Hellebuyck (Goaltender, 25 years old, $6.166 million AAV through 2023-24)

The Jets rose last week by locking in Hellebuyck. The longstanding goaltending woes that plagued the Jets over the past decade might at last be solved. Winnipeg can be an even bigger climber on this list by the end of summer if management also takes care of 20-year-old sniper Patrik Laine (eligible for an extension, as his entry level contract expires at the end of next season). In the meantime, having Ehlers and Scheifele under long-term contracts at a bargain rate is a huge boon.


Core: Jack Eichel (Center, 21 years old, $10 million AAV through 2025-26); Rasmus Dahlin (Defense, 18 years old, $925,000 AAV through 2020-21); Rasmus Ristolainen (Defense, 23 years old, $5.4 million AAV through 2021-22)

The one thing the Sabres can cling onto right now is future hope. After winning the Dahlin lottery, the surefire stud defenseman inked a three-year, entry-level deal. The max commitment to Eichel is what propels the Sabres here. Let’s remember, the No. 1 center is still just 21. Ristolainen, another guy in the too-young-to-rent-a-car-without-an-extra-fee club, has already proved he can shoulder a huge workload. He has four more years with a sub-$6 million cap hit until he’s an UFA.

Core: Aleksander Barkov (Center, 22 years old, $5.9 million AAV through 2021-22); Vincent Trocheck (Center, 25 years old, $4.75 million AAV through 2021-22); Jonathan Huberdeau (Left wing, 25 years old, $5.9 million AAV through 2022-23); Aaron Ekblad (Defense, 22 years old, $7.5 million AAV through 2024-25)

Surprised to find the Panthers this high? This is as much about quality as it is about quantity. The Panthers might have some flaws as a team, and they’re only just knocking at the door for the playoffs, but management has identified the young core it likes and inked it for the foreseeable future. This is the only team in our rankings with four top everyday 27-and-under players under contract for at least the next three seasons (Nashville’s Saros is a backup goalie).

Core: Jonathan Marchessault (Left wing, 27 years old, $5 million AAV through 2023-24); Reilly Smith (Right wing, 27 years old, $5 million AAV through 2021-22); Colin Miller (Defense, 25 years old, $3.875 million AAV through 2021-22)

What’s the Golden Knights’ best asset? Depth, of course. And while it was a largely veteran crew that led the Golden Misfits to the Stanley Cup final last season, it’s hard not to be optimistic about the future that’s locked in, especially when considering some very affordable contracts here. With the prospect of a new contract for 25-year-old top center William Karlsson lurking, Vegas has plenty of pieces to build around.

Core: Sean Couturier (Center, 25 years old, $4.33 million AAV through 2021-22); Shayne Gostisbehere (Defense, 25 years old, $4.5 million AAV through 2022-23)

Ink Ivan Provorov or Travis Konecny to an extension? The Flyers will end up much higher on this list. Both players will see their entry-level contracts expire next summer. But we still love what GM Ron Hextall is building here — and we’re not even getting into Philadelphia’s loaded prospect crop — especially considering he has one of the best two-way forwards in the game and an ascending offensive defenseman signed at reasonable rates for the next few seasons.

Core: Nathan MacKinnon (Center, 22 years old, $6.3 million AAV through 2022-23); Gabriel Landeskog (Left wing, 25 years old, $5.571 million AAV through 2020-21)

The Avalanche are destined to catapult on this list should they sign the skilled Mikko Rantanen to an extension. The 21-year-old’s entry-level contract expires after next season. MacKinnon’s term (five more seasons until UFA status) and discount cap hit buoy the team’s status on this list. Landeskog’s contract is a great addition, though he has only three seasons before his deal is up. What the Avalanche need to work on is depth; all three of these players compose the team’s top, and by far most productive, line.

Core: Johnny Gaudreau (Left wing, 24 years old, $6.75 million AAV through 2021-22); Sean Monahan (Center, 23 years old, $6.375 million AAV through 2022-23); Elias Lindholm (Center/right wing, 23 years old, $4.85 million AAV through 2023-24)

Like the Avalanche and Jets, the Flames boast a terrific one-two punch of forwards. The combination of Gaudreau and Monahan should be creating magic for the Flames for years to come. Even better, they bring relatively low cap hits. Calgary has a chance to make huge leaps should Matthew Tkachuk sign an extension. We’re also waiting to see if Lindholm and Noah Hanifin enjoy breakout seasons after a change of scenery.

Just missed: Washington Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes


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