Opinion

Plenty of ink has been spilled about the state of the Winnipeg Jets, with more to come as the puck drops in exactly two weeks on a shiny new season. But what about the state of the mighty Central Division, which has been out of sight, out of mind around these parts for the past 18 months?

Plenty of ink has been spilled about the state of the Winnipeg Jets, with more to come as the puck drops in exactly two weeks on a shiny new season. But what about the state of the mighty Central Division, which has been out of sight, out of mind around these parts for the past 18 months?

It's not the Murderers' Row it recently was, that's for sure. And that could bode well for the local hockey club. The Jets appear to have the horses to make this a compelling race from start to finish. They'll ice a more skilled and mobile team than in recent years, especially on the back-end that also includes some significant size, which should allow them to better handle whatever style their opponent wants to play. Or, even better, to dictate the type of game on any given night.

The Jets appear to have the horses to make this a compelling race from start to finish.

FRED GREENSLADE / THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Jets appear to have the horses to make this a compelling race from start to finish.

There's been many changes since Winnipeg last mixed it up with the likes of Minnesota, Chicago, St. Louis, Nashville, Dallas and Colorado during a 2019-20 season that came to a screeching halt in March 2020. If you could please turn to your programs....

You'll notice a new addition in the form of the Arizona Coyotes, which slide over from the Pacific Division to make room for the expansion Seattle Kraken. For the first time, the NHL now has four equal groupings of eight teams.

Several faces you likely grew to loathe as a Jets fan are gone. Prominent players such as Pekka Rinne (retired), Ryan Ellis (traded), Alex Steen (retired), Duncan Keith (traded), Brent Seabrook (career-ending injury) Zach Parise and Ryan Suter (both bought out) are just a few of the notable departures. In their place are several new stars including Calder Trophy winner Kirill Kaprizov in Minnesota, Vezina Trophy winner Marc-Andre Fleury in Chicago and top-tier defenceman Seth Jones with the Blackhawks. Adjust your booing accordingly.

The Colorado Avalanche are considered a bonafide Stanley Cup favourite with one Vegas oddsmaker setting their over/under at 110.5 points this season.

(AP PHOTO/JACK DEMPSEY, FILE)

The Colorado Avalanche are considered a bonafide Stanley Cup favourite with one Vegas oddsmaker setting their over/under at 110.5 points this season.

Colorado is the clear cream of the crop, beginning the year as a bonafide Stanley Cup favourite. One Vegas oddsmaker has set their over/under at 110.5 points, tops in the NHL. But after that, the field appears to be wide open. Winnipeg's line is at 92.5, which would be good for just fifth-place. They lag just behind Minnesota (97.5), Dallas (95.5) and St. Louis (94.5), but ahead of Chicago (91.5), rebuilding Nashville (84.5) and sad-sack Arizona (68.5), which are viewed as the proverbial free space on the bingo card with the lowest projected point total in the 32-team loop.

Prior to the pandemic, the Central Division was known for its heavy, grinding nature and was home to some of the league's powerhouses. Whether it was Chicago capturing three Stanley Cups between in six years between 2010 and 2015, Nashville and Winnipeg finishing one-two in the regular-season standings in 2017-18 or St. Louis winning it all in 2018-19, there was no shortage of skill, size and grit as these clubs beat the heck out of each other on a nightly basis.

Last season, the eight teams were scattered around three different makeshift divisions as a result of temporary, COVID-19-related re-alignment. The Jets skated with their six Canadian neighbours north of the border. Colorado, Minnesota, St. Louis and Arizona did battle in the West Division. And Nashville, Dallas and Chicago remained in a re-jigged Central. Five of those eight clubs -- Winnipeg, Colorado, St. Louis, Minnesota and Nashville — made the playoffs. Only the Jets and Avalanche advanced to the second round, where they were both eliminated.

How it all shakes out now that they're reunited is one of the intriguing storylines to this coming season.

How it all shakes out now that they're reunited is one of the intriguing storylines to this coming season.

"It's going to look different," coach Paul Maurice told me on Monday following his team's on-ice session at Bell MTS Iceplex. "All of those teams look slightly different than they did. I just don’t necessarily have a beat on what that’s going to look like."

Maurice, like probably many of you, admits he didn't catch the Central rivals in action very much last season. But he's about to get a healthy dose of them starting next month. Under the new NHL scheduling format, the Jets will play 26 games within their own division, meaning three or four dates each with the Avalanche, Wild, Stars, Blues, Blackhawks, Predators and Coyotes. Winnipeg will also play the eight Pacific Division teams three times each, meaning a total of 50 games are within the Western Conference.

And don't look now, but hockey's new heavyweights now all pretty much reside in the East, where the Jets will play their remaining 32 games (two each against the 16 clubs). According to oddsmakers, six of the top eight projected clubs in 2021-22 are from either the Atlantic Division (two-time champion Tampa, along with Toronto, Boston and Florida) or the Metropolitan Division (New York Islanders and Pittsburgh). Colorado and Vegas are the only teams to crack the elite eight from what appears to be more of a mild, mild West.

Opportunity is knocking for Winnipeg to get off to a strong start.

In that sense, opportunity is knocking for Winnipeg to get off to a strong start. They'll play seven of their first eight games against Anaheim (three times) San Jose (twice), Los Angeles (once) and Nashville (once), who are all forecast to finish somewhere between 24th and 31st in the regular-season standings.

Of course, hockey happens on ice, and not paper, as Jets captain Blake Wheeler so eloquently noted in his first training camp media session. "That doesn't mean s--t. Let's play some games," he said of pre-season prognostications.

He won't have to wait much longer. Sure, it's been a while since these rivals faced each other, and plenty of names on the back of the sweaters may have changed. If history is any indication, it shouldn't take long for familiarity to once again breed contempt. And the Jets have at least a fighting chance to be standing on top of the division at the end.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

 

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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