The Central Division perennially exhibits a brutal fight from start to finish, and this season is no different. For as much talent as there is at the NHL level, the Central's top teams also boast some of the deeper prospect pipelines in the NHL. Having a surplus of young talent below the NHL level is going to give some of those top teams trade flexibility if they're looking to bolster their rosters in the hopes of a long playoff run.
Here's a look at what has been going on in the prospect pipelines for each team in the Central Division, including our way-too-early 2018-19 watch for players who can make an impact a year from now.
The Blackhawks are in a bit of a transitional phase; this isn't uncommon territory for them, but this time it seems to be a little rockier as their core continues to lose pieces and ages. Despite years of either trading away their picks or finding themselves lower in the first round, the Hawks have managed to maintain a decent prospect pipeline. There isn't a lot of great depth at this point, which is the primary concern, but a few middle-round picks are starting to emerge as potential options down the line.
Henri Jokiharju, the team's most recent first-round pick, has been having a sensational season for Portland in the WHL. The defenseman is averaging over a point per game and is expected to play a substantial role for Finland at the World Juniors. Joni Tuulola is another young Finnish defenseman having a solid season, but at the professional level in Liiga. The 21-year-old is among the minutes leaders in Finland's top pro division, while also putting up 19 points in 32 games, which represents a career high. In Russia, winger Andrei Altybarmakyan is a player to know for his aggressive style. He should be on Russia's roster for the World Juniors. Meanwhile, 23-year-old goalie Ivan Nalimov continues to impress while splitting time in net for Vladivostok in the KHL, with a sterling .942 save percentage in 17 appearances. Forward Maxim Shalunov is another intriguing prospect, but it's unclear if he'll ever come to North America.
In the college ranks, Northeastern winger Dylan Sikura is one of the most productive players in the country, and he has a shot at making Canada's Olympic team. There also are some NCAA defensemen of particular intrigue, including Boston University's Chad Krys and Sikura's Northeastern teammate Ryan Shea, but Denver's Ian Mitchell might have the best pro upside of the bunch. He has been great as a freshman for the defending national champs. Over in the AHL, Matthew Highmore, an undrafted free agent signing out of the QMJHL, has been Rockford's second-leading scorer this season as a rookie, while Czech forward David Kampf also has been a bright spot in his first North America campaign.