6. Winnipeg Jets
Second place in Central, 52-20-10
Why they can win – It’s been a changing of the guard at the top of the Central Division this year. Typically, the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues are near the top but this year saw the Predators and Jets buck that trend. Winnipeg is a very solid team and has perhaps the best young pure goal scorer the NHL has right now. Patrik Laine is still a teenager but has scored at least 36 goals in each of his first two seasons. He’s surrounded by a talented crew up front including Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor. All five of those players scored at least 18 goals this season.
The Jets also went big at the trade deadline to bring center Paul Stasny in from St. Louis. It was a trade that was a little out of character compared to recent Jets teams. It just goes to show they area serious threat. Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba lead the defensive corps, and both have their certain strengths. Trouba is still getting back up to speed after missing a chunk of time with a sprained ankle. Winnipeg may not possess the most traditional defense, but it worked to the tune of a plus-40 differential in goals.
Why they can’t – They have the hurdle of not winning a playoff game since they moved back to Winnipeg in 2012-13. That shouldn’t matter to this version of the team, but they’re going to be asked about in incessantly until things change. They mad the postseason in 2014-15 and got swept by the Ducks. The lack of a real defensive presence could come back to haunt them, as well. Byfuglien is a big man, but it’s difficult to pint to anyone on the back end that would be a number one defenseman on any team. Still, it’s been working all season long. Getting Trouba back at full-go is a big help as well.
X Factor – Connor Hellebuyck: Yes, goalies are always extra important in the playoffs. It’s a big deal for the Jets as Connor Hellebuyck has been phenomenal for Winnipeg this year. He absolutely must play his A-game because the Jets have no options behind him. Steve Mason is the number two and has a goals against over three and a save percentage of barely .900. Michael Hutchinson has barely played all season. If Hellebuyck struggles, there doesn’t appear to be a parachute for the Jets.
First Round Matchup – Minnesota Wild, Jets won the regular season 3-1
This series should be a quick one. The Jets were a better team before the Wild lost Suter and now it’s even worse for Minnesota. The Jets almost won the President’s Trophy, even though nobody is really talking about that. It would be a major failure if the Jets lost this series.
Prediction – Jets in 5