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ANALYSIS: Jets will be competitive in return to Central Division

Blake Wheeler doesn’t put a lot of stock into the predictions that are being made right now.

As the captain of the Winnipeg Jets prepares for his 14th NHL season, Wheeler left no grey area when asked about the benefits of moving back into the Central Division or if there were any benefits to being back in close proximity to a team like the Colorado Avalanche that’s being viewed by many observers as a Stanley Cup favourite.

“I’ve learned that the predictions are never right,” said Wheeler.

“Let’s wait until the season starts. And when you get a few months in, you kind of know who the teams are. We’ve been on both ends of that spectrum. So, our division is always tough. The teams are always tough, top to bottom. It’s always one of the toughest divisions.

“I find, just depth-wise, there are no easy nights. I’m not saying it’s a fun division to play in, but it’s a fun division in the sense that you’re challenged every game. There’s no off-nights. There’s no freebies.

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“You’ve got to bring your game every night and that’s why, over the years, our teams have been competitive just because it’s been a battle every night. So that’s something we look forward to.”

Winnipeg Jets’ Blake Wheeler. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

It’s easy to see where Wheeler is coming from.

The prediction game is a challenging one at the best of times, never mind when the NHL is going back to a full 82-game schedule and many teams haven’t seen one another since March of 2020 (or the winter of 2019 in some cases).

But peering into the crystal ball is part of the job — occasionally even a fun part, even when those predictions don’t come to fruition.

The Jets open the 2021-22 campaign on Wednesday night against the Anaheim Ducks, another one of those clubs the organization hasn’t seen in quite some time.

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“That actually came up today — when was the last time that we played Anaheim — and nobody really knew. But once you get going and you put the lineup on the board, you start to remember some of those names and faces,” said Wheeler.

“So it’s going to be different. There’s been turnover around the league and teams are going to be different. Style of play is going to be different. So we’ll just have to adjust on the fly. There’s no real way to prepare for it until you get into it and you see them.

“There will probably be some in-game adjustments based on how the game’s going and we’ll just have to go with that.”

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RAW: Winnipeg Jets Paul Maurice Interview – Oct. 6 – Oct 7, 2021

A thorough look at how the Central Division teams could stack up is below, but the early indications are that the Jets should once again be competitive in this return to the meat grinder.

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While the Avalanche are hungry after getting bounced in the second round by the Vegas Golden Knights, the Arizona Coyotes appear to be at the other end of the spectrum, building for the future and poised to reside in the basement after moving from the Pacific Division to the Central.

That essentially leaves six other teams to battle for what appears to be four playoff spots — three are assured and the fourth looks like a second wild card, based on projections for the Pacific Division.

In some ways, there is a 2017-18 feel around these parts in the Central Division.

Going into that season, the Nashville Predators were one of the favourites after reaching the Stanley Cup final but falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

That year, the Jets and Predators went toe to toe in the chase for the President’s Trophy, with Nashville earning the honour and Winnipeg piling up a franchise-record 114 points.

The Jets may not reside in the same high-rent district as the Avalanche or Vegas Golden Knights this time around, but they should remain within striking distance provided.

Can there be some benefits to playing in a division where one of the so-called favourites resides?

Winnipeg Jets assistant coach Dave Lowry, left, and head coach Paul Maurice talk to their team during the first day of their NHL training camp in Winnipeg, Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

“If you’re beating them, I guess. I don’t know,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice.

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“Every year, we do the same thing that you guys do. There’s predictions. This year’s really hard and we already know that because you’re asking, ‘How good is this team, how good is this team?’ How do you know? You just haven’t seen them. And then it never pans out the way you think. And there’s a reason for it.

“It’s always closer than anybody else thinks. By the end of it, maybe not — there’s your first-place team with 110 points and then there’s your team that decided in January they weren’t getting there and they got rid of guys and they finished with 65 points and you say, ‘Well, there’s a huge gap.’

“But you play that team in October, November, it’s a one-off. Maybe there’s a gap in a seven-game series but you don’t play those until the spring anyway. So a lot of the clichés that we fire out on any given night are true. On any given night, one goaltender can win you a hockey game. And then everybody’s dangerous.

“Everybody’s got good players. You just get as ready as you can and play as hard as you can.”

So how will things shake down this season in the Central? Here’s our best guess.

Read more: ANALYSIS — Projecting the Jets’ opening-night lineup

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Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche waits for a faceoff in the first period of a game against the Vegas Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena on April 28, 2021 in Las Vegas. The Golden Knights defeated the Avalanche 5-2. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images).

Colorado Avalanche

2021 record: 39-13-4, 82 points. First in West Division, lost to Vegas Golden Knights in the second round of the playoffs.

The skinny: The Avalanche still feature one of the most potent lines in hockey, led by Nathan MacKinnon, who wasn’t afraid to hide his devastation after his team was eliminated from the post-season. MacKinnon is one of only a few players in the NHL who can challenge Connor McDavid for both the Hart Trophy and the Art Ross Trophy.

Retaining captain Gabe Landeskog was important for an organization trying to take the next step, even if the negotiations were contentious at times. Colorado’s defence corps is improved and led by future Norris Trophy winner Cale Makar, while Darcy Kuemper replaces Philipp Grubauer. When healthy, Kuemper has proven to be capable of great things and he could flourish playing in front of this offensive juggernaut.

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The big question is about whether the depth pieces can do enough to help push this team over the top after the departure of Brandon Saad, Joonas Donskoi and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare.

Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, left, blocks the net on Calgary Flames’ Mikael Backlund during second-period NHL pre-season hockey action in Calgary. Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Winnipeg Jets

2021 season: 30-23-3, 63 points. Third in North Division, lost to Montreal Canadiens in the second round.

The skinny: The additions of Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon have provided a clear upgrade to the back end, turning a potential weakness into a strength. The forward group features a veteran group with plenty of talented weapons, even if the battles for third-line right wing and the fourth line remain.

Connor Hellebuyck looks ready for a heavy workload and should benefit from a reduction in shot volume and shot quality compared to the past two seasons.

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Several Jets players are on the radar to join Nikolaj Ehlers (Denmark) at the Olympics and that’s a storyline that will be worth monitoring during the first half of the season.

The Avalanche look like the cream of the crop in the Central, but there’s no reason the Jets can’t create some separation in that second tier of teams battling for a playoff spot.

The Dallas Stars’ Jamie Benn, rear left, and Denis Gurianov, rear right, look on as teammates run through drills during NHL hockey practice in Dallas, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

Dallas Stars

2021 season: 23-19-14, 60 points. Fifth in Central Division, missed playoffs.

The skinny: Just one season removed from a trip to the Stanley Cup final, the Stars find themselves at a bit of a crossroads. After a serious COVID-19 battle, Dallas is determined to return to contender status.

The return of centre Tyler Seguin (limited to three games last season) should certainly help, as will the continued emergence of Roope Hintz. Jason Robertson added some offensive punch and was a finalist for the Calder Trophy, while Miro Heiskanen should find himself in the Norris Trophy discussion. This group is known for being defensively sound and tough to play against, but how things shake out in the crease is the biggest question mark.

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Prospect Jake Oettinger could be ready to push, but veteran Braden Holtby was brought in to complement Anton Khudobin and while Ben Bishop starts the season on LTIR, he could eventually factor into the equation as well.

The St. Louis Blues take on the Chicago Blackhawks during second-period NHL exhibition game action in Edmonton on Wednesday, July 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson.

St. Louis Blues

2021 season: 27-20-9, 63 points. Fourth in West Division, swept by Colorado Avalanche in the first round.

The skinny: The Blues felt the impact of losing former captain Alex Pietrangelo in free agency last season, but many of the core pieces remain from the improbable 2019 Stanley Cup championship run. Ryan O’Reilly remains the leader of this bunch and the arrival of Brandon Saad and Pavel Buchnevich should add an offensive dynamic, even after the departure of Jaden Schwartz to the Seattle Kraken.

Goalie Jordan Binnington is looking for a return to form, while Colton Parayko is healthy and ready to assume the role as the No. 1 D-man. Russian winger Vladimir Tarasenko asked for a trade during the off-season and his wish has yet to be granted.

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How he performs or what GM Doug Armstrong gets in return if he chooses to move him could go a long way to determining how the Blues fare this season.

Edmonton Oilers goalie Mike Smith, right, blocks a shot by Chicago Blackhawks centre Jonathan Toews during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Chicago, Thursday, March 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh). AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

Chicago Blackhawks

2021 season: 19-27-10, 55 points. Sixth in Central Division, missed playoffs.

The skinny: The arrival of Vezina Trophy winner Marc-Andre Fleury in goal and two-time Stanley Cup champion Tyler Johnson up front, coupled with the blockbuster deal for Seth Jones and the signing of fellow blue-liner Jake McCabe, certainly represents plenty of reasons for optimism — as does the return to health for captain and Winnipegger Jonathan Toews, who missed all of last season.

Patrick Kane is still one of the most dynamic wingers in the NHL and combines with Toews as a reminder of the three Stanley Cups the franchise won during the previous decade.

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Off the ice, the franchise finds itself in the middle of an investigation surrounding sexual assault allegations made against former coach Brad Aldred dating back to 2010 and the findings of that investigation could have far-reaching ramifications and repercussions.

Minnesota Wild’s Joel Eriksson Ek (14), Mikko Koivu (9), Jared Spurgeon (46), Ryan Suter (20) and Ryan Hartman (38) celebrate a goal during third-period NHL Stanley Cup qualifying-round action against the Vancouver Canucks in Edmonton, Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Codie McLachlan.

Minnesota Wild

2021 season: 35-16-5, 75 points. Third in West Division, lost to Vegas Golden Knights in the first round.

The skinny: Manitoban Dean Evason did an outstanding job in his first full season behind the bench of the Wild, who gave Vegas everything they could handle in the opening round. Calder Trophy winner Kirill Kaprizov completely changed the offensive dynamic of this group.

The departure of Ryan Suter and Zach Parise represents a changing of the guard and it will be interesting to see who emerges beyond captain Jared Spurgeon. Centre Joel Eriksson Ek became a two-way force last season, while Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin could take another step forward on the back end.

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The pressure is on Kaprizov to continue to produce after signing a five-year, $45-million deal. The goalie tandem of Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen will likely determine whether they get into the playoffs or fall just short.

In this Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020 file photo, Nashville Predators defenceman Roman Josi, of Switzerland, plays against the St. Louis Blues in the third period of an NHL hockey game in Nashville, Tenn.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Mark Humphrey, File.

Nashville Predators

2021 season: 31-23-2, 64 points. Fourth in Central Division, lost to Carolina Hurricanes in the first round.

The skinny: A remarkable late-season run led by goalie Juuse Saros propelled the Predators into a playoff spot, but there’s still some question about whether the organization is about to enter a rebuild (with forward Filip Forsberg and Mattias Ekholm on expiring contracts) or simply retool on the fly.

Goalie Pekka Rinne retired, defence pillar Ryan Ellis and feisty winger Viktor Arvidsson were dealt and Winnipegger Cody Glass (sixth overall choice by the Golden Knights in the 2017 NHL draft) was brought in to add skill up front. The Predators will likely be tough to play against and should remain in the wild-card mix, but this could be the season they take a step backward.

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Arizona Coyotes goaltender Darcy Kuemper, right, makes a save on a shot by Vegas Golden Knights right wing Mark Stone (61) during the third period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, May 1, 2021, in Glendale, Ariz. The Golden Knights won 3-2 in overtime. AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

Arizona Coyotes

2021 season: 24-26-6, 54 points. Fifth in West Division, missed playoffs.

The skinny: The departure of captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson, high-scoring winger Conor Garland and dependable two-way centre Christian Dvorak in trades marked a clear signal that the Coyotes are looking to the future. They’ve got a Norris candidate in Jakob Chychrun and some offensive weapons in Phil Kessel and Clayton Keller, but the team is lacking depth and is unproven between the pipes.

They’re likely headed for the Shane Wright sweepstakes, otherwise known as the quest to secure the first-overall pick in the 2022 NHL draft.

Ken Wiebe covers the Winnipeg Jets for Sportsnet.ca and is a regular contributor to CJOB.

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