The Winnipeg Jets are a pretty good team. But in the NHL’s brutally tough Central Division, being a pretty good team may not be good enough. Can the Jets overcome the most potent collection of teams in all of hockey?
Outside of the woeful Colorado Avalanche, every single franchise in the division is a strong post-season candidate.
The Chicago Blackhawks perhaps best illustrate the division’s potency. Chicago has won two of the past three and three of the past six Stanley Cups and now sit two games over .500, yet somehow rank sixth in the division. If the playoffs started today, they’d be on the outside looking in, and while in some ways that’s an absurd statement it also nicely shows how tough this corner of the NHL is.
It’s going to get tougher once Chicago really picks up steam. The Blackhawks have been without franchise defenceman Duncan Keith for the past two weeks (he’s expected back some time in November) and to make matters worse, they’ve been shooting at just a 5.3 per cent clip at five-on-five. In short order Keith will be back and that shooting percentage will rebound, making life that much harder for everyone else.
Winnipeg is the team currently sitting between the Hawks and the post-season. In any other division, the Jets would be a shoo-in for the playoffs, because they have everything. From a roster perspective they have a deep defensive group with some high-end talent, two competent goaltenders pushing each other for time and a forward corps that features a nice blend of skill, physical play and two-way acumen.
The five-on-five stats love the Jets. Winnipeg’s 51.2 per cent score-adjusted Corsi rating ranks No. 11 in the NHL; putting that into English they’re pretty good at firing more pucks at the net than their opponents. The Jets’ power play and penalty kill are both red-hot early, too, though Winnipeg could do a better job of generating shots on the former and suppressing them on the latter.
And yet, the Jets are vulnerable to a resurgent Chicago team, unless they manage to pass one of the four clubs currently sitting in front of them. It won’t be easy.
The Minnesota Wild parlayed an incredible 28-9-4 run down the stretch into a fourth-place finish in the Central last season, coming in just a single point ahead of Winnipeg. Of the four Central teams currently ahead of the Jets in the standings, the Wild may be the most attainable target to pass because once again the goaltending is proving suspect, with both Devan Dubnyk and Darcy Kuemper having sub-.900 save percentages.
So far, that hasn’t mattered. The Wild are a strong possession team, which has counterbalanced some of the goaltending mess, but the real secret to the club’s early success is its ridiculous 10.8 shooting percentage at five-on-five (first in the NHL, and two points higher than last year’s best team). That number will fall, and if the goaltending doesn’t get better to compensate, Minnesota will be in trouble. If the goaltending does improve, the Wild could be Stanley Cup contenders.
Nashville has the same record as Minnesota, but more stable fundamentals. The Predators do a better job of dominating the shot clock at five-on-five, which is helpful. Critically, however, they can have confidence in their starting goaltender. After two difficult seasons, Pekka Rinne rebounded last year, going 41-17-6 with a .923 save percentage; early in 2015-16 his 6-1-2 record and .925 save percentage are even better.
The scary thing is the Preds may not yet have peaked. Their even-strength shooting percentage is down one point from last year, which doesn’t sound like much, but works out to an extra goal every four games. That matters a lot. With a deep defence and an impressive team structure, Nashville looks ready to contend.
Less balanced, but perhaps more frightening than the Predators, are the Dallas Stars, who currently boast the NHL’s No. 1 and No. 2 scorers. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin are tied at 20 points each, four ahead of runners-up Patrick Kane and Taylor Hall. They aren’t likely to maintain that gap – Dallas is currently shooting an unsustainable 20 per cent on the power play – but even so the duo may be the most lethal in all of hockey.
The Stars’ virtues don’t end there either. Behind Benn and Seguin is a deep and capable cast of forwards. The defence remains a weakness, but John Klingberg has continued to play extremely well and helped to shore up the group. In net, Dallas has two very expensive goalies, but it also has two plausible starters, which is a nice position to be in. This is a team that can out-score whatever modest problems it has.
St. Louis has, of course, been a regular season giant for years, but hasn’t won a single game after the first round of the playoffs since 2002. This is a dominant even-strength team; in fact, early this season it looks like the best five-on-five team in hockey. So there’s very little doubt that coach Ken Hitchcock’s wonderful machine will make it to the post-season. The question is what the Blues will do once they get there.
The Central has it all. It has the NHL’s best team in recent years in Chicago. It has a heavy, physical, dominant regular season team in the Blues. The Predators may have the best defence in the game; Dallas may have the best offence. Minnesota is deep, fast and a competent goalie away from being a nightmare of a matchup.
Since only five teams from the Central can get in, does that leave the Jets on the outside looking in? Possibly, but probably not. In each of the past two seasons, one of the Big 5 in the Central has stumbled, generally because the goaltending didn’t hold up. Last year it was Dallas; the year before it was Nashville. The obvious candidate this season is Minnesota.
Even without a stumbling opposition, the Jets’ chances aren’t bad. It’s telling that so far on the year Winnipeg is 2-1 against the Central Division, dropping a decision against St. Louis, but topping both Minnesota and Chicago. This is a good, well-rounded team, a team that could well force its way past one of the other five excellent clubs in the division.