Could the Jets Win the Central Division?

The Winnipeg Jets have never won a division title, and it’s been over ten years since the Atlanta Thrashers claimed one.

With a playoff spot still on the to-do list for the Jets, projecting a division title would seem premature. For the Jets, however, 2017-18 represents their best opportunity yet to claim the Central crown.

Stop laughing for a minute and bear with me.

By all accounts, there are division titles in the Jets’ future. They are a young, up-and-coming team with their best years ahead of them and their best players all entering or well short of their primes. While their claim on the 2019 Stanley Cup is shaky, they seem destined for big things, as long as they can keep the core together.

The Winnipeg Jets have no trouble putting the puck in the net. – Winnipeg Jets vs Philadelphia Flyers – November 17, 2016 (Photo: Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Now, as much as the future may be bright, it seems too early to predict the Jets topping the ultra-competitive Central. Yet it can be done. This article will make no guarantees on the subject, but based on factors both internal and external, the Jets could do it this year.

Lots of things will need to go right for the Jets, and here and there some things may need to go wrong for their opponents. By no means, however, is a Central Division title a pipe dream.

While the Iron is Hot

The Jets look better on paper than they have since they arrived in Winnipeg, and maybe even in franchise history. The playoffs are no longer a distant goal but an expectation. As good as the team looks on paper, there are six other teams competing for the division’s top spot, and if those teams all ice their best rosters, the Jets won’t earn that distinction.

However, the Central has never looked so wide open and chaotic. The Jets should strike while the iron is hot because their competition may never be this spread out again.

Chicago Blackhawks

For starters, the Chicago Blackhawks won the Central Division and the Western Conference last season, but a playoff sweep at the hands of the Nashville Predators exposed some holes. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are now on the wrong side of 30.

The offseason was unkind to the Blackhawks. Trading Artemi Panerin and Niklas Hjalmarsson is debatable, but whether you believe the Hawks got equal value for them or not (many do not), they received no immediate value in trading Trevor van Riemsdyk or Scott Darling. And depth on defense is a concern.

As for the depth up front, no team that has Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will struggle, but the unexpected and bizarre loss of Marian Hossa hurts. Perhaps the Hawks’ inexhaustible farm system could alleviate the loss, but there’s no denying this offseason has hit the Blackhawks where they live.

But then, we’ve said that before, haven’t we?

Colorado Avalanche

As for the Colorado Avalanche, no one is entertaining the idea of them becoming division champions. Even the most optimistic observers have them barely squeaking into the playoffs. That is assuming everything goes right.

The Avs made a few token moves this offseason, good ones by and large, but not drastic ones. Expect this to be a rebuilding year for them.

Dallas Stars

Dallas is the Central’s most improved team in the offseason but they also had the most room for improvement. The additions of Alexander Radulov and Martin Hanzal improve what was already impressive forward depth. In goal, Ben Bishop is an undeniable upgrade.

Dallas’ defense, however, remains a question mark. At forward they’re one of the few teams in the NHL with the horses to match Winnipeg, but their D falls well short of the Jets. Can the Stars outscore their defensive woes?

If the Stars were competing for the title of “most entertaining team” they’d be in the running. As for the Central they, like the Jets, are a darkhorse candidate.

Minnesota Wild

The Minnesota Wild will be largely the same team they were in 2016-17: deep at all positions, but wildly inconsistent.

As older players like Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu begin to wind down, younger players like Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter will continue to step up.

The Wild will be one of the tougher challenges the Jets face if they’re to win the Central, but they can be beaten. Much like the Blackhawks, they had tough playoffs last year that exposed some weaknesses. And if Devan Dubnyk were to be hurt at any point, the Wild would be a mess.

Nashville Predators

All right, how could anyone doubt a team fresh off a Stanley Cup Final appearance and with one of the best defense corps in the NHL?

Poking holes in the Predators is going to be tough and unpopular, but they have lost James Neal, Colin Wilson and (as of now) Mike Fisher up front. Nick Bonino and Scott Hartnell are unlikely to replace them adequately. The biggest worry with the Preds? The dreaded Stanley Cup Finals hangover. Well, that and, like the Wild, the Preds are an injury to their goalie away from being in real trouble.

The Predators banged crashed and sweated through four rounds of playoff hockey last year. Might it take a toll on them? (Photo: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

But, also like the Wild, the Preds promise to be tough competition for whoever challenges for first in the Central.

St. Louis Blues

The Blues finished right in the middle of the Central Division’s playoff spots last year, and this year seems to promise more of the same.

I have to give the Blues credit for somehow swindling the Philadelphia Flyers out of Brayden Schenn early in the offseason. His five-on-five troubles are eyebrow raising, but if he puts up the kind of numbers he did last season in St. Louis, the trade will look pretty good.

St. Louis has some depth concerns, something I never thought I’d say about them two years ago. There’s a clear drop-off from Vladimir Tarasenko to their next best forwards. After Schenn, Alex Steen and Jaden Schwartz there’s another drop-off.

Debate amongst yourselves what the loss of Ryan Reaves will do to the team, but when your big offseason signing is Chris Thorburn you may not have done your best to stay competitive. However, give full credit to the Blues for signing Colton Parayko, but the Blues’ defense is no longer the pillar of strength it was during the years they sat atop the division.

Colton Parayko (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

And in goal? Well, Jake Allen was brilliant at times but shaky at others, and Carter Hutton is not going to alleviate much of the pressure. The Blues are talented but vulnerable.

Opportunity for Winnipeg

The purpose here was not to slag or underestimate the Jets’ division rivals. Rather, the aim was to point out that none of these teams is flawless or can really be called the undisputed favorite. The Central is wide open. Make no mistake, the Jets are not the favorites either. If they’re going to win, everything is going to have to go right.

Remember the incredible season Mark Scheifle just put up? He’ll have to do that again or even better. The 36 goals Patrik Laine sniped as a rookie? He’ll need to equal or better those totals. Nikolaj Ehlers is going to need to keep moving forward. So is Kyle Connor. Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little and Mathieu Perreault, the wily vets, will need big years. All of these players will need to stay healthy.

Tyler Myers will need to play a full season the way he played in his 11 games last year. And neither Jacob Trouba nor Josh Morrissey, both still young, can afford any sort of step back. And the help the Jets brought in via free agency will need to live up to their contracts.

Tyler Myers
Tyler Myers will need to play most or all of a season, and he’ll need to play well for the Jets to have a shot at the top spot in the Central. (Photo: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

In goal, one or both of Steve Mason and Connor Hellebuyck will need to have huge nights and occasionally steal games. And, this most of all, Paul Maurice and his coaching staff will need to implement a system that works with the speedy young talent they have up front, rather than holding them back.

That’s an awful lot of factors that need to go well, but looking at them, nothing is unrealistic. The Jets have never been in a better position going into a season, and the mighty Central Division has never looked so open. Perhaps the young Jets can take advantage and sit atop the division a few years ahead of schedule.