When the NHL consolidated its six divisions into four a few years ago, the league was doing so out of geographical convenience. The side effect was that it created a monster. The Central Division is an unforgiving wasteland that will punish you for simply residing within it.
Just ask the Winnipeg Jets.
Winnipeg is currently in a precarious position of its own making. The Jets' loss in St. Louis on Tuesday was their sixth consecutive defeat on a merciless road trip. They've fallen to sixth in the division. In any other sport, in any other division, such a losing streak wouldn't be a cause for concern. It would be a blemish on a long season with plenty of time to turn the ship around.
"We're not looking in the mirror and panicking -- that's what the fans do," said Jets defenceman Adam Pardy. "It's a tough stretch right now, for sure. But we handled adversity many, many times last year -- and worse than this."
Jets fans probably appreciate his optimism. And by all accounts, the rest of the team shares it. They aren't ready to give up. Nor should they.
But there's no question they'll spend the rest of the season trying to atone for this mess of a road trip.
The latest four losses in the streak came against the Blues, Stars, Predators and Wild. That's eight points Winnipeg conceded to Central Division rivals just in the past week. The Jets have also gone 2-5 in their own division, by far the worst record in the Central.
It should be obvious how that could haunt a team in any division. But it especially hurts in the Central, where the scramble for points is so fierce teams rarely make up for slow starts. You only need to compare the division standings on Nov. 17 and the end of the regular season over the past two years to understand that.
|Pos.||on Nov. 17||by end of season|
|1||Chicago (30 pts)||x - Colorado (112 pts)|
|2||St. Louis (29 pts)||x - St. Louis (111 pts)|
|3||Colorado (28 pts)||x - Chicago (107 pts)|
|4||Minnesota (28 pts)||x - Minnesota (98 pts)|
|5||Dallas (22 pts)||x - Dallas (91 pts)|
|6||Winnipeg (22 pts)||Nashville (88 pts)|
|7||Nashville (22 pts)||Winnipeg (84 pts)|
|Pos.||on Nov. 17||by end of season|
|1||St. Louis (25 pts)||x - St. Louis (109 pts)|
|2||Nashville (24 pts)||x - Nashville (104 pts)|
|3||Chicago (21 pts)||x - Chicago (102 pts)|
|4||Winnipeg (21 pts)||x - Minnesota (100 pts)|
|5||Minnesota (20 pts)||x - Winnipeg (99 pts)|
|6||Colorado (17 pts)||Dallas (92 pts)|
|7||Dallas (16 pts)||Colorado (90 pts)|
Since the Central Division came into existence two years ago, only one team stuck among the bottom three in mid-November scratched and clawed its way out by April. The 2013-14 Stars were the only Central team to make the playoffs with a sub-.500 record in their own division, and that was thanks to an outstanding 27-14-9 record against the entire Western Conference. Even then they only managed to squeeze into the playoffs by two points as the last wild card team.
Winnipeg is 3-6 against the Western Conference this year.
Those standings above also confirm a widely held expectation about the Western Conference wild card race: It's going to come down to the Central Division. Los Angeles leads the Pacific with 22 points but would rank only fifth in the Central. If the Jets' only option to make the playoffs is to claim a wild card spot, they need to clamber ahead of at least two teams in front of them or hope one of their competitors falls off.
That hasn't happened in the last two years and there's no reason to think it will now. St. Louis and Dallas look stronger than ever. Nobody expects Chicago to lag behind them all season and Minnesota looks strong enough to make it as a wild card, too. That leaves Nashville, which just demolished Winnipeg with a 7-0 win last week.
If Winnipeg's predicament seems unfair, that's because it kind of is. They have a good team, far better than most expected a few years ago. Their talented youth is the envy of the NHL. Just because history is against them doesn't mean they won't make the playoffs.
But the Central is merciless. The Jets have dug a hole for themselves and the division has already started filling it in over them.