Lately two unsung teams in the Western Conference have been surprising and holding steady near the top of the standings. This week, I'm going to take a look at what these teams are doing that's keeping them up there.
GETTING THEIR 'VILLE
The Nashville Predators made a huge statement Saturday when they beat the St. Louis Blues and took over first place in the Central Division. Now, I don't know that the Predators will stay up there all season. Are they as good as the Los Angeles Kings or Anaheim Ducks or Chicago Blackhawks? They've still got to show me that, but they've definitely looked better than the Colorado Avalanche or Dallas Stars, and they are looking like a real threat to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It seems pretty clear this team has responded to new coach Peter Laviolette. They're a different team to watch offensively, and with Pekka Rinne, who has been as good as anybody in the NHL the past five seasons when he's healthy, it's no surprise the goaltending is great every night. Add in a tremendous defense with Shea Weber, Roman Josi and Seth Jones and you can see that Nashville is still the good team defensively we're used to seeing, but now it's scoring goals.
In addition to the new system under Laviolette, the Predators have three offensive guys giving them a punch they've lacked for years. Filip Forsberg is leading the team in scoring, James Neal is a pure scorer and Mike Ribeiro has also been a good offensive contributor. These are all top-six offensive players that weren't in Nashville a year ago. When you add three players like that, it changes your team. Right now Nashville looks changed in a lot of ways, and it also looks like it'll be a factor all season long.
KEEPING UP WITH JONES
A big reason the Predators defensive game has remained so steady is the accelerated maturation of Jones. They say it takes a defenseman longer to develop than a forward in the NHL, and there is definitely truth to that, but a large reason for that is because every mistake a defenseman makes ends up in his net. They're magnified. When a young forward makes a mistake, a defenseman or a goalie is usually there to cover it up.
Jones is making less and less mistakes. He's starting to really look poised with the puck, and he's getting more aggressive and jumping into the play offensively. A few weeks ago, Neal got his first hat trick, and the turning point of the game came when Jones jumped up into the play, got a pass from Ribeiro and then passed it on to Neal who scored. Jones is starting to get involved in ways like that, but it also isn't coming at the expense of his defensive responsibilities.
This is a case of growing into a defensive role and making better decisions. We're seeing that from Jones now. Of course, he's lucky because he gets to watch and learn from Weber every night, and that'll make any defenseman better, but it's really starting to show in Jones' play now. He is a big reason why the Predators will stay in this race going forward.
Perhaps more unexpected than Nashville's fast turnaround is the quick change of fortune for the Calgary Flames. This is a team most people would have expected to be in the running for the No. 1 pick in next year's draft, but right now the Flames are just three points back of the Ducks in the Pacific and have more points than all but one team that made the Stanley Cup Playoffs out of the Western Conference this past spring.
If you ask me, the secret has been work ethic and goaltending. Even last season when the Flames were struggling, they were one of the hardest-working teams in the NHL under Bob Hartley. That was their claim to fame and it's continued this season.
Now Calgary has brought in a really good goaltender in Jonas Hiller and the young players like Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan are starting to mature. The defense has been strong with TJ Brodie and Dennis Wideman both having good seasons so far and beyond that they just work, work, work.
This might be the best positive story in the NHL right now. The Flames are a team no one thought would be competitive in such a deep conference and right now they're holding their own. And it's no fluke either. That doesn't mean Calgary won't drop off eventually, but it's 16 games into the schedule for them and they're winning on the road, at home, against good teams and bad teams. It's a big enough sample size to show you something. Does it mean Calgary is playoff-bound? Not necessarily. But it does show you the Flames are moving in the right direction, and we're seeing it every time they go out on the ice.