Nashville Predators: Road To Central Title Goes Through Winnipeg

(Photo by Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images)
(Photo by Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images) /

The Nashville Predators start a four-game road trip with a visit to Winnipeg Tuesday night. How did the Jets become the Predators’ top obstacle?

The Nashville Predators are in the middle of a Central Division dogfight. This is nothing new. Four seasons have passed since this alignment of the division was formed. Four different franchises have stood at the top of the standings at the end of the season. As it stands right now, a fifth different franchise could claim the championship at the end of this season.

The Predators have yet to raise a division championship banner to the Bridgestone Arena rafters. They were expected to be one of the top contenders this season & have lived up to that billing. The Winnipeg Jets weren’t expected to be one of the top contenders. They’ve finished no better than fifth in the division since their arrival.

Where did they come from?

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I went to a couple of my Winnipeg-based friends for answers & they were happy to point me in the right direction.

Hellebuyck’s Emergence

As Nashville Predators fans know, when you have an elite goalie you always have a chance. Connor Hellebuyck has taken the next step forward in his development this season & rates as one of the top goalies in the NHL.

The twenty-four year old spent the off-season with “goalie whisperer” Adam Francilla, who helped Hellebuyck get his head right & adjusted key parts of his on-ice play to make him a better player. Francilla was previously credited for turning Devan Dubnyk into a regular starting goalie with his methods.

What stands out to me while looking at his stats is how similar his numbers are to Nashville’s Pekka Rinne.

Hellebuyck: 32-9-8, .924 Sv%, 2.32 GAA, 6 shutouts
Rinne: 32-9-4, .929 Sv%, 2.27 GAA, 6 shutouts

Rinne has started four fewer games than Hellebuyck, but that takes nothing away from the Jets’ goalie’s outstanding work. Any team that meets Winnipeg in the playoffs won’t find scoring easy.

Wheeler Brings Leadership & Points

Winnipeg’s captain has also been the best player on the team this season. Blake Wheeler was named captain not long after Andrew Ladd was traded. He’s been a more vocal leader than Ladd was, and many Jets fans say it’s just what the team needed.

Wheeler has stepped up to the plate as a vocal leader, & he also leads the Jets in most offensive categories. Wheeler’s 54 assists are second-most in the NHL. His 72 points after 62 games are fifth-most in the league. Barring a catastrophe, he will beat his career season-high of 78 from the 2015-16 season. This is Wheeler’s tenth season in the NHL. His point production this season may end up being an aberration. In any event, it serves as a great example for his young charges.

The Jets are definitely a squad that needs leadership. Their average age is 26.4, with only six players on the team at 30 or older. Patrik Laine, their top goal-scorer, is 19. Mark Scheifele, the rumored next captain, is 24. Nikolaj Ehlers is 21. Kyle Connor is 21. All of these men are at 40 points or more for the season.

This is a great sign for Winnipeg’s future, as most of their players are nowhere near their prime years. The young guns are trending upwards. They’re listening to Wheeler, Matt Hendricks & the few veterans in the room. Their production on offense means that Dustin Byfuglien can actually focus on defense & not have to do as much on the other end. It’s great when you’re 32, which qualifies as ancient on this team.

Front-Office Savvy

Nashville Predators fans know that good moves by management typically lead to good results on the ice. The Winnipeg Jets’ front office has been patient since their purchase of the franchise. They’ve foregone splashy moves in favor of developing talent in the minors. When they let guys like Andrew Ladd & Evander Kane go, it was for prospects. Tyler Myers & Joel Armia, two men that were part of the Kane trade, are both on the roster & are in the top ten on the team in points.

Fifteen of Winnipeg’s twenty-six roster members were drafted by the organization, including three from the Atlanta Thrashers days. Thirteen current Jets were drafted in the first round of the Entry Draft. The talent on the Jets’ AHL squad, the Manitoba Moose, has been able to fill in when necessary.

An Imminent Showdown

We might wonder where the Winnipeg Jets came from. They flew under the radar. They’re here, and they’re good. They’ve scored the fifth most goals in the league while allowing the fifth-fewest. They have the third-best PP% & the eighth-best PK%.

One thing you can’t help but notice when looking at these stats is how close the Nashville Predators are in all of them. Nashville won 5-3 on November 20. Winnipeg won 6-4 on December 19. They meet three more times, including Tuesday night in Winnipeg.

Next: Pekka Rinne among best ever

Predators fans may have visions of returns to the Western Conference & Stanley Cup Finals dancing in their heads. Before any of that happens, the Winnipeg Jets need to be dealt with.