NHL offseason grades: Central Division

NHL offseason grades: Central Division

Divisions: Metropolitan (Sept. 5) | Pacific (Sept. 6) | Atlantic (Sept. 7)

With the NHL offseason all but wrapped up, we’re handing out comprehensive grades for all 32 teams. The four-part series starts with an in-depth look at each club in the Central Division.

Some contract figures are reported. Most players on two-way deals have been omitted.

Arizona Coyotes

Zac BonDurant / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Key arrivals

Key departures

Re-signed

Unsigned

Rookies who could crack the lineup

General manager Bill Armstrong said in July that the Coyotes are looking to take the next step in their rebuild in 2023-24.

Arizona shed a pair of bad contracts and added multiple legitimate NHLers through trade and free agency without sacrificing long-term salary cap flexibility.

All five of the Coyotes’ free-agent additions are only inked for two years or less. Not only does that give the club a handful of candidates to flip at the trade deadline for more future assets, but each signing is also a short-term commitment should any underperform.

The biggest move of Arizona’s offseason was a bit of a surprise when Logan Cooley reversed course and signed an entry-level contract at the end of July. Inking Cooley nullifies any concerns that he might’ve played out his career at the University of Minnesota and elected free agency. The 19-year-old immediately adds an exciting offensive piece down the middle to the NHL roster.

Armstrong completely overhauled the Coyotes’ defense. As many as four new blue-liners could be in the lineup for the season opener from what Arizona rostered at the end of the 2022-23 campaign.

An offseason featuring moves for the present rather than the future is a much-needed change of pace for the Coyotes. Still, they remain a long shot to contend for a playoff spot. But make no mistake, they’re in the right direction and will be fun to watch next season.

Grade: A-

Chicago Blackhawks

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Key arrivals

Key departures

Re-signed

Rookies who could crack the lineup

The Blackhawks’ offseason strategy significantly changed when they landed the first overall pick in the draft lottery.

Adding Connor Bedard legitimately changes the franchise’s trajectory. Chicago is still far from contention, but it now has a superstar-level prospect to build around.

Every move GM Kyle Davidson made this summer seemed to link back to Bedard. It began two days before the draft when the Blackhawks acquired Taylor Hall and the free agent rights to Nick Foligno. It continued on Day 2 of the draft when Chicago traded for Corey Perry’s rights.

Chicago made all three additions to help Bedard transition to the NHL. Hall is a former first overall pick and gives the 18-year-old a talented winger to play with. Foligno captained the Columbus Blue Jackets for six years, and Perry is a perennial winner.

However, the Blackhawks could’ve done more to utilize their cap space to acquire future assets rather than spending it to overpay on veteran free agents. They added a 2026 second-round pick to buy out Josh Bailey, but that was their lone move this offseason to add draft capital.

That said, Chicago’s offseason had a clear direction, which is more than what can be said for others. The Blackhawks will remain a bottom-feeder in 2023-24 while insulating Bedard with experience and skill to make his rookie season as smooth as possible – that’s pretty much a best-case scenario for the state of the franchise.

Grade: B-

Colorado Avalanche

Steph Chambers / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Key arrivals

Key departures

Re-signed

Rookies who could crack the lineup

GM Chris MacFarland’s job this summer was to find a way to reconstruct the Avalanche’s forward depth with six departures in free agency and another by trade. The end result is impressive.

Colorado will look to Ryan Johansen to fill its second-line center void that’s been empty since Nazem Kadri’s departure. But even if the 31-year-old can’t reach those heights, adding the veteran pivot at a 50% discount with no assets lost is a worthwhile swing.

MacFarland’s best work came when he dealt the underwhelming Alex Newhook to the Montreal Canadiens. He used the assets received in the deal to acquire Ross Colton and draft Mikhail Gulyayev, immediately filling the depth lost in Newhook and replenishing the prospect pool.

The six-year gamble on Miles Wood is quite risky, though his $2.5-million cap hit is fairly manageable. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the short-term reclamation project in Jonathan Drouin is among the bigger low-risk, high-reward signings of the summer.

The decision to bridge Bowen Byram was a necessary evil considering the salary cap, but it could come back to bite Colorado in 2025.

The Avs managed to replace J.T. Compher’s and Evan Rodrigues’ departures and improve the upside of its bottom six while adding draft capital. There’s certainly risk involved in a handful of moves, but there’s a lot to like in what MacFarland accomplished this summer.

Grade: B

Dallas Stars

Christopher Mast / National Hockey League / Getty

Key arrivals

Key departures

Re-signed

Rookies who could crack the lineup

It wasn’t a flashy offseason for Jim Nill after reaching the Western Conference Final. With a contract extension in hand and the core of his roster locked in, the GM’s summer consisted of adding a trio of new depth forwards.

Dallas’ biggest addition was Matt Duchene, who surprisingly became available when the Nashville Predators bought out the skilled veteran prior to free agency. At a very reasonable $3-million cap hit, Duchene gives the Stars another option to play down the middle or on the right wing while bringing significant offensive upside.

The 32-year-old scored 22 goals and 56 points in 71 contests in 2022-23 and is only one season removed from a career-high 43 goals and 86 points. The Stars don’t need Duchene to be that type of player at a reduced price tag. But if he clicks alongside veterans like Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin or is rejuvenated with a young gun like Wyatt Johnston, Dallas could become among the deepest offensive threats in the league.

Re-upping Evgenii Dadonov for $2.25 million after his impressive post-deadline stretch is a solid bit of business, as is bringing in Craig Smith and Sam Steel for minimal cap hits.

On the blue line, shipping Colin Miller to the New Jersey Devils opens the door for Nils Lundkvist to take a bigger role in the fall. After spending a first-round pick last year to bring in the skilled Swede, the Stars need Lundkvist to start making his potential a reality.

Nill didn’t accomplish a lot this summer, but he also didn’t need to. The moves he made don’t impact the Stars’ long-term flexibility and enhance their chances in the short term.

Grade: B+

Minnesota Wild

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Key arrivals

Key departures

Re-signed

Unsigned

Rookies who could crack the lineup

Hamstrung by an eye-watering $14.7 million of dead cap space thanks to the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter buyouts, GM Bill Guerin barely had any room to make additions to his squad this summer.

And that shows in the results. Pat Maroon, acquired via trade, is the only player Minnesota brought in who played most of his games last campaign in the NHL.

Re-signing Marcus Johansson – a seamless fit alongside Matt Boldy in 2022-23 – was a quality move, as was locking in Filip Gustavsson to a sub-$4-million cap hit following a breakout campaign. But the reliance on internal growth is too significant for a team that has lost in the first round each year under Dean Evason and hasn’t won a playoff series since 2015.

The Wild boast an impressive prospect pool that’ll see Brock Faber take a full-time role after debuting in the postseason. If Minnesota is to take a step forward, the pressure will be on top-10 pick Marco Rossi to find his form in the NHL after lackluster stretches to this point.

Even when considering the cap restraints and solid contracts for Johansson and Gustavsson, only adding a 35-year-old Maroon over an entire offseason makes it difficult to give the Wild a positive grade.

Grade: C-

Nashville Predators

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Key arrivals

Key departures

Re-signed

Rookies who could crack the lineup

Few teams had as much significant change over this summer as the Nashville Predators.

David Poile – the only GM in team history – retired and handed the keys over to first-time GM Barry Trotz. The two-time Jack Adams winner wasted no time making his mark on the roster, retaining 50% of Johansen’s salary in a trade and buying out Matt Duchene.

Rather than handing roster spots to up-and-comers, Trotz splurged in free agency to add “serial winners.” Ryan O’Reilly fills the center void left by Johansen, while Roman Josi may find himself with a new partner in Luke Schenn.

But Trotz wasn’t done adding, inking Gustav Nyquist and taking a low-risk flier on Denis Gurianov.

It’s a somewhat confusing offseason, with the Predators undergoing massive change at forward. But Schenn is the lone addition on the back end, and the impressive duo of Juuse Saros and Kevin Lankinen return in net from a year prior.

Nashville eats almost $9 million of dead space this season, which balloons to nearly $12 million in 2024-25. Committing $10.45 million over these two campaigns in O’Reilly, Nyquist, and Schenn doesn’t necessarily hurt, but it leaves the roster in an awkward spot.

None of the trio make the Predators legitimate Stanley Cup contenders and instead leave the team where it’s lived since 2018 – good enough to contend for a fringe playoff spot and likely lose in the first round if it makes it.

Grade: C

St. Louis Blues

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Key arrivals

Key departures

Re-signed

Rookies who could crack the lineup

For a time, it seemed like the Blues were working on a blockbuster deal with the Philadelphia Flyers that would alter the makeup of their roster.

Instead, Kevin Hayes arrives at a 50% discount for a measly sixth-round draft pick with minimal other notable moves over the summer for GM Doug Armstrong.

Hayes is a solid addition to a St. Louis team that underwhelmed in 2022-23. The 31-year-old produced 18 goals and 54 points last season, and he brings much-needed center depth (Kasperi Kapanen, of all players, took reps down the middle for the Blues last season). For about $3.6 million – rather than his $7.2-million ticket in Philadelphia – Hayes can be a beneficial presence in a middle six.

However, it remains to be seen whether Hayes’ addition – in conjunction with Oskar Sundqvist and Mackenzie MacEachern returning – is enough to push the Blues back into playoff contention. St. Louis still has an old, declining blue line and an overpaid Jordan Binnington in the crease.

If the Blues are to bounce back in 2023-24, it’ll likely come on the back of a resurgent forward group. While technically not offseason additions, the club acquired the likes of Kapanen, Sammy Blais, and Jakub Vrana around the trade deadline, and those forwards showed signs that they could again be useful pieces.

Armstrong started reshaping his forward group ahead of the summer and attempted to shake up the defense before being rebuffed by a no-trade clause. Though his biggest move didn’t come to fruition, Armstrong had a decent offseason with no significant losses to the roster.

Grade: B-

Winnipeg Jets

Darcy Finley / National Hockey League / Getty

Key arrivals

Key departures

Re-signed

Unsigned

Rookies who could crack the lineup

With rumors swirling about Connor Hellebuyck’s and Mark Scheifele’s futures, this summer could’ve turned south quickly for GM Kevin Cheveldayoff. However, it ended up being fairly tame – except for two significant moves.

It was time for Winnipeg and Blake Wheeler to go their separate ways. Though he was still effective offensively last season, his poor defensive game and a bloated $8.25-million cap hit made him an easy player to move on from after the club’s tough end to the campaign.

Pierre-Luc Dubois’ departure came as no surprise. But it’s a strong move for Cheveldayoff to get three NHL players in return – particularly a promising young player in Gabe Vilardi and an established, consistent scorer in Alex Iafallo – for someone widely known to want out of Winnipeg.

After dealing with injury concerns, Vilardi broke out for 23 goals and 41 points in 63 games with the Los Angeles Kings last season. He’s a versatile forward with underrated size (he’s listed at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds) who can slot directly into Wheeler’s role.

Iafallo rounds out an impressive group of top-nine wingers that sees trade-deadline acquisition Nino Niederreiter return. The primary concern is down the middle, where Vilardi or Vladislav Namestnikov may be required to play as the second-line pivot.

Outside of those two transactions, the Jets didn’t make many notable moves this summer. Re-acquiring Laurent Brossoit to be Hellebuyck’s backup is Winnipeg’s only new signing guaranteed to be on the NHL roster.

Considering how dire things were when it appeared all of Dubois, Wheeler, Scheifele, and Hellebuyck could be out the door, Cheveldayoff managing to maintain a roster that can compete in the Central Division has to be considered a win.

Grade: B

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