Welcome to the Wild Wild West, a new series that will focus on the future home conference of the soon-to-arrive NHL franchise in Seattle. The idea here is to get you well acclimated with the landscape of what’s happening in the Western Conference, so that when Seattle does ultimately begin play in 2021, you will be an expert on the team’s closest rivals.
This series will be a joint effort with fellow NHLtoSeattle contributor, Andy Eide, who will focus his efforts on the topsy-turvy Pacific Division, while yours truly will focus on the stacked Central. We aim to alternate posts weekly for the remainder of the regular season and through the NHL Playoffs, so that you get a little dose of Western Conference wisdom each and every week until hockey’s ultimate prize is lifted.
Looking at the Central Division standings as of the writing of this story (on Tuesday, February 19th), Winnipeg holds the top spot by the narrowest of margins, with just a one-point lead over rival Nashville, though the Predators have played three more games. But the team to watch right now—and it’s absolutely no debate—is the St. Louis Blues, who happen to be the hottest team in the NHL, and have been rapidly climbing the table to get into that top echelon with Winnipeg and Nashville. More on those teams in a bit.
Meanwhile, in the Wild Wild West’s Wild Wild Wild Card Race (catchy, isn’t it?), pretty much every team in the entire conference remains in the hunt, as no team in or around the two WC spots even seems interested in grabbing control of the situation.
For this first week, let’s take a look at the top-three teams in the division. Don’t worry, I promise we’ll talk about the others at some point very soon, but I just can’t bring myself to write about my beloved Minnesota Wild right now, who are in the midst of a completely heinous tailspin. Oh, and I prefer to not see my nemesis, Patrick Kane, and his Chicago Blackhawks quietly inching their way back into the playoff picture, so for now, I’m just going to pretend it’s not happening.
The Jets entered this season as my favorite to get out of the West and into the Stanley Cup Final, after they were dispatched in the Conference Finals by Vegas last season and returned pretty much their entire roster for ’18-’19. Somehow they’ve managed to stay largely off the radar of the national media, even though their primary logo clearly features a conspicuous fighter jet, rather than something more stealthy… that… would… elude most radar systems… get it?
What may keep this team hidden away, at least here in the U.S., is that it plays its games in a relatively small Canadian market, in a part of the continent that just doesn’t get much attention from… well… pretty much anybody. Make no mistake, this group continues to impress and deserves every bit of coverage it can get, and the roster seems to have all the tools needed for another deep Cup run.
Youthful superstar Patrik Laine hasn’t racked up the goals that many anticipated (though he’s still potted 25 through 59 games played), but fellow superstar Mark Scheifele has picked up the slack with 30 tucks and 38 assists on the season.
- Dustin Byfuglien, lower body, day-to-day
- Joe Morrow, lower body, day-to-day
- Nikolaj Ehlers, upper body, day-to-day
The Predators are certainly in the hunt to win the Central, and one has to think that if this team can get hot at the right time—with all of its offensive firepower both up front and on the blueline—then there’s simply no stopping these guys. Despite sitting just one point behind the Jets in the standings (Winnipeg does have three games in hand, as previously mentioned), there’s still a sense that Nashville has another gear that it just hasn’t yet found.
General Manager David Poile made a couple of relatively small moves last week to bring some more “sandpaper” into the lineup, acquiring Brian Boyle from New Jersey and re-acquiring Cody McLeod from New York. Poile is the master of the “hockey” trade, one-for-one deals that seem to work out in his favor, so this is a team to keep an eye on as Monday’s trade deadline looms.
Coach Peter Laviolette gets a balanced attack that comes at Nashville’s opponents in waves by activating his bevy of offensive defensemen. Roman Josi (13 goals-36 assists=49 points), Mattias Ekholm (7-34=41), and Ryan Ellis (6-26=32) are all having monster seasons from the defensive position, while Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson fly around up front and scare the bejeezus out of opposing goalies.
- Zac Rinaldo, shoulder, out for season
- Craig Smith, lower body, day-to-day
- Miikka Salomaki, upper body, day-to-day
St. Louis Blues
Well, I bet you didn’t see this coming earlier in the season. St. Louis looked completely down and out, and coach Mike Yeo was ultimately sent packing in favor of former Flyers benchboss Craig Berube, who was brought in on an interim basis. Something tells me that “interim” tag may get removed at some point, because the Blues have gone from gutter dwellers to riding high and firmly planted in a playoff spot.
Helping Berube’s cause immensely has been a relatively unknown masked man named Jordan Binnington, who at 25-years-old galloped in from nowhere to save the day from the shaky clutches of the underperforming Jake Allen. Before this season, Binnington previously appeared in one NHL game, in which he allowed one goal on four shots. The rest of his pro career has been spent in the AHL, which is why you likely hadn’t heard of him. He’s been the story of the second half, though, going 13-1-1 with a 1.61 goals against average and .937 save percentage in 17 appearances, and currently has the Blues floating in the clouds of an unbelievable 11-game win streak.
Offseason acquisition Ryan O’Reilly has been the engine that has kept this team alive up front, while supremely skilled Vladimir Tarasenko has been on a pretty legitimate tear since the calendar turned to 2019. Those guys do the scoring, and Binnington does the rest. This is a VERY fun team to watch right now.
- David Perron, upper body, day-to-day
- Carl Gunnarsson, upper body, day-to-day
**Injury Reports come from Rotoworld.com.