No one picked Vegas and Winnipeg as the top two teams in the West after the All-Star break. The Golden Knights came completely out of nowhere, so maybe we can forgive prognosticators for that omission. But the Jets? Maybe we should've seen then coming. Last season, the Jets finished with 87 points, seven out of the final spot in the West. Their goal differential was -7, but they were second in the conference in goals-for. Heading into this season, they knew it was a make-or-break year, with forward Blake Wheeler saying, “It's got to be this year, it just has to be.”
It’s been a whole different look this time around, as they sit second in the always-competitive Central Division.
The biggest difference this season, of course, has been Connor Hellebuyck. Last season, in 56 games, the 24-year-old netminder had a 2.89 goals-against average, good for 37th in the league. This season, he's seventh with a 2.30 GAA. His save percentage of .925 is sixth, tied with Bruins stalwart Tuukka Rask. Even a slight rise in play from Hellebuyck in 2017-18 would've done wonders for the Jets; that he's turned himself into one of the best goalies in the West means that Winnipeg is a serious contender.
You can argue about Dustin Byfuglien as a No.1 defenseman (he's averaging over a minute more per game than Jacob Trouba), and the Jets would probably benefit from picking up another blueliner ahead of the trade deadline. (If they could somehow get Ryan McDonagh, that would be a coup, but even Ian Cole or Nick Holden would work.)
So let's give some love for Winnipeg, because, despite being young, they are a serious threat in the West.
Here’s how we see teams stacking up this week, from 31-1:
31. Arizona Coyotes
Last rank: 31 (-)
Max Domi went from a red-hot rookie to mediocre center in his second season. What happened? He converted on 11.5% of his shots his first year. This season? 2.9%
30. Buffalo Sabres
Last rank: 30 (-)
Expect Evander Kane to be gone before the trade deadline is over on Feb. 26. Who else, though? Kyle Okposo? Jason Pominville? Marco Scandella?
29. Ottawa Senators
Last rank: 29 (-1)
Good to see the losing streak ends, but more worrisome will be Erik Karlsson's happiness. What could Mark Stone or Mike Hoffman fetch on the trade market?
28. Montreal Canadiens
Last rank: 27 (-1)
The Habs are playing like a team that knows it's going to be broken apart soon.
27. Vancouver Canucks
Last rank: 28 (+1)
A good start out of the All-Star break with a win over Colorado, but the Canucks still need a lot more out of Bo Horvat and Sam Gagner.
26. Detroit Red Wings
Last rank: 24 (-2)
A nice win against San Jose as it looks like goalie Petr Mrazek is taking back the starting job. He played well, stopping 66 of 70 despite splitting the weekend’s outings.
25. Florida Panthers
Last rank: 26 (+1)
They stopped the bleeding with wins against the Islanders and Sabres. The problem for the Panthers is that there really isn't anybody to sell that's not a part of the core. Radim Vrbata and Jamie McGinn won't bring back too much.
24. Edmonton Oilers
Last rank: 25 (+1)
Some positive signs with a win over Vegas, but then a 5-0 drubbing against Buffalo. Yet another confusing week in a confusing season.
23. Chicago Blackhawks
Last rank: 22 (+1)
A really nice win over Nashville before falling to Vancouver. They'll be up and down until Corey Crawford comes back.
22. New York Rangers
Last rank: 19 (-3)
Is it time to sell? Probably. Rick Nash would be the biggest name on the market, and the 12 teams not on his no-trade list will be listening. Defenseman Ryan McDonagh would attract plenty of attention, too. Might as well gauge interest given that the team is going nowhere this season.
21. Carolina Hurricanes
Last rank: 23 (+2)
Their last nine games: Wins against Detroit , Montreal (twice), Ottawa, Losses against Calgary, Vegas, Pittsburgh, Detroit, San Jose.
20. New York Islanders
Last rank: 21 (+1)
We've seen far too little of the Jaroslav Halak who beat Vegas 2-1, a lot more of him giving up four or five goals. What changed against Vegas—and is he still capable of going on a Halak Attack-type run?
19. Philadelphia Flyers
Last rank: 17 (-2)
They’re on a little slide (0-3-1) after a good January got them back in playoff conversation. Was that a fluke? Or will they straighten themselves out in time?
18. Columbus Blue Jackets
Last rank: 12 (-6)
Like many John Tortorella teams, The Jackets have run out of gas a bit. Sergei Bobrovsky can only do so much.
17. Calgary Flames
Last rank: 8 (-9)
They've officially cooled off, having lost six in a row before finding a way in overtime against Chicago. Four of those losses were via overtime or shootout, but they have seemingly used all their good mojo into that big winning streak.
16. Minnesota Wild
Last rank: 18 (+2)
A good win over Vegas and then a rough loss to Dallas, both after looking ordinary against Pittsburgh. Just not enough firepower.
15. Los Angeles Kings
Last rank: 16 (+1)
The 5-0 loss to Nashville didn't look great. If we see a repeat performance against Tampa Bay next weekend, are we simply looking at a mediocre team?
14. Anaheim Ducks
Last rank: 20 (+6)
An OT loss against Ottawa has been the only blemish in an otherwise really good month. John Gibson is playing well, as is Ryan Getzlaf and Adam Henrique. the Ducks are starting to become a sneaky-good team.
13. San Jose Sharks
Last rank: 13 (-)
Three losses in a row, followed by two good road wins over Columbus and Carolina. While Joe Thornton wasn't having his best season, losing him indefinitely to a knee injury is hard to replace.
12. Pittsburgh Penguins
Last rank: 14 (+2)
Good to see Matt Murray come out of the break with a decent start. Yeah, he let up four goals in a win over Washington, but didn't let it turn into a complete meltdown.
11. New Jersey Devils
Last rank: 10 (-1)
Not sure, as some on Twitter suggest, that the Devils need an enforcer, but it's not a great thing for Travis Zajac to be fighting. A rugged third-liner might not be terrible. Ottawa’s Jean-Gabriel Pageau would look nice in a Devils uniform…
10. Colorado Avalanche
Last rank: 15 (+5)
The loss of Nathan MacKinnon is devastating, though there might be enough offense for things to be okay in the interim. Alexander Kerfoot gets first shot as the new No.1 center. The 23-year-old has had a really nice rookie year—32 points in 48 games. We'll see how he adjusts.
9. Dallas Stars
Last rank: 9 (-)
Let's take a look at the last six games. Big wins against Buffalo, Florida, Arizona. Big losses to Toronto and Los Angeles. But then a really nice win against Minnesota. Inconsistent, but capable of big things might be the best way to describe them.
8. Toronto Maple Leafs
Last rank: 11 (+3)
A 5-0 win against the Islanders and a 4-0 win against the Rangers probably says more about the losing teams than it does about the Leafs. Still, impressively dominant displays.
7. St. Louis Blues
Last rank: 7 (-)
Before their win against Montreal, coach Mike Yeo said he couldn’t take Carter Hutton out of the net while he's playing so well. Jake Allen starts the next game, a 3-1 loss to Boston.
6. Washington Capitals
Last rank: 5 (-1)
Maybe Chandler Stephenson won't stay hot, but after scoring three goals in three games, he's shown the Caps have some good depth. Always imperative to have scorers not named Ovechkin.
5. Boston Bruins
Last rank: 6 (+1)
Goalie Tuukka Rask has not lost a regulation game since November 26th. He's been a bit overlooked because of the success of the top line, but he's becoming a Vezina candidate.
4. Nashville Predators
Last rank: 3 (-1)
Not sure what, if anything, Mike Fisher brings, other than veteran leadership on a team that has plenty. Curious move.
3. Winnipeg Jets
Last rank: 4 (+1)
They played three straight against the hottest teams in hockey: A win against Tampa, an OT loss to Vegas, and a 3-0 win over Colorado. Not bad.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning
Last rank: 2 (-)
Seem to have rectified things from their mid-January swoon. For a team with such an outstanding collection of talent, the struggles on the man-advantage are a bit concerning.
1. Vegas Golden Knights
Last rank: 1 (-)
Already the best expansion team of all-time (in any sport), Vegas had two impressive wins after the break over Calgary and Winnipeg, and followed it up with a tough loss to Minnesota, but a nice win at Washington. They keep plugging away.