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Non-playoff teams in West have turned things around

by Dan Rosen / NHL.com

The current Western Conference standings provide a study for how fleeting success is in the NHL and how quickly teams on the bottom can rise toward the top.

There are pros, like the Winnipeg Jets' defense and puck possession, which can be looked at as one in the same. There are cons, like the Dallas Stars' defense and puck possession, to the point where they have allowed the most goals in the NHL.

Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne has played like a Vezina Trophy candidate, so that's a pro. Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov has not, so that's a con.

The Vancouver Canucks have reestablished their offensive game and overall consistency, a big pro. The San Jose Sharks appear to have lost a bit of each, definitely a con.

The Calgary Flames have found ways to win, particularly with six third-period comeback victories. That's a pro. The Minnesota Wild have been weighed down by their struggling power play, a con all season long.

When you put it all together it's fairly obvious why the Jets, Predators, Canucks and Flames have jumped into the Stanley Cup Playoff race to this point in the season, ahead of the Stars, Avalanche, Sharks and Wild, four of the eight playoff teams in the Western Conference last season.

With the help of TSN and NHL Network analyst Craig Button, here is a breakdown for why each of these eight teams has gone in the direction they have so far this season. It's notable too, because they're all playing Tuesday, including the Jets in Dallas and the Predators in Colorado.

IN POSITION

Vancouver Canucks (38 points, 2nd in Pacific Division)

The Canucks have purged any remnants of last season under coach John Tortorella and are back to being one of the top teams under first-year coach Willie Desjardins. Button said they look like the team it was under former coach Alain Vigneault, who took the Canucks to the Stanley Cup Final in 2011 and won the Presidents' Trophy twice.

"Last year was a total aberration," Button said. "We don't have to pile on John Tortorella, but it was a disaster."

Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin are again among the top scorers with 26 points apiece. They're on pace to combine for 150 points after combining for 97 last season.

"People talk about the Sedins falling off, but the Sedins' numbers fell off last year because they fully embraced what the coach wanted them to do," Button said. "If you want the Sedins chasing the puck, well they're not going to be able to do as much with it."

Radim Vrbata has proven to be a shrewd offseason acquisition by first-year general manager Jim Benning. He has 23 points as the right wing with the twins.

Vancouver hasn't missed Ryan Kesler because Nick Bonino has come in and stabilized the second line with 19 points. Brad Richardson, who had 23 points in 73 games last season, has 15 points in 28 games this season. He's on pace to nearly double his production.

Nashville Predators (36 points, 2nd in Central Division)

Pekka Rinne
Goalie - NSH
RECORD: 17-5-1
GAA: 1.89 | SVP: .931
Make what you will of the change in tempo for the Predators from how they used to play under former coach Barry Trotz to how they do now under Peter Laviolette, but the most obvious and biggest difference for them this season is Rinne.

Rinne is arguably the leader for the Vezina Trophy with a .931 save percentage, a 1.89 goals-against average and a League-best 17 wins. At this point last season he was out of the lineup with an infected hip.

Nashville missed the playoffs by three points last season, largely because Rinne didn't play from mid-October to early March. Had he been healthy he likely would have made up those three points to get Nashville in the playoffs, which might have saved Trotz's job.

"This guy is a top-end goaltender and [when] you take him out of your lineup it looks infectious," Button said.

Beyond Rinne, the Predators are getting high-end offense from their top line of Mike Ribeiro, Filip Forsberg and James Neal. Ribeiro and Neal were offseason acquisitions while Forsberg is a rookie. They have combined for 62 points, including 47 from Forsberg and Ribeiro.

"You look now at real high-end offensive players, they never had that before," Button said.

Calgary Flames (36 points, 3rd in Pacific Division)

Calgary has trailed going into the third period in 13 games, tied for second most in the NHL; it has won six of those games, the most of any team in the NHL.

The Flames may be providing some heart attacks and they leave a lot to be desired in the fancy stats department, most notably in their 5-on-5 Corsi-for percentage (.440 percent), Fenwick-for (.460 percent) and PDO (101.79 percent), but they are at least finding ways to win.

"The thing about [Calgary coach] Bob Hartley is every day is about getting better, every day is about the details," Button said. "I'm seeing that take place."

Goalies Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo have been solid, but not overwhelming (combined .914 save percentage, 2.44 GAA). But the Flames lead the NHL in offense from their defensemen.

Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie, Dennis Wideman and Kris Russell have combined for 79 points. Giordano, arguably the Norris Trophy favorite to this point, leads all NHL defensemen with 28 points.

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"The goaltending has to come up a little bit and if it doesn't, staying at this level is going to be difficult," Button said. "But I'll be straightforward, I think they're a playoff team."

Winnipeg Jets (33 points, 4th in Central Division)

Winnipeg is fourth in the League in goals-against per game (2.21) and tied with Nashville for sixth in shots-against per game (27.8).

Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson have come out of nowhere to form one of the League's best goaltending tandems this season. They have a combined .922 save percentage. Pavelec has a 2.30 GAA and .915 save percentage and is on pace for career-highs in both categories.

"I think Winnipeg was a team that could get into a race with the game and play off goals, but defensively they were loose," Button said. "Paul said, 'Listen, I plan to establish this part of the game and then we'll try to put it all together.' "

The Jets haven't figure out how to turn their defense into offense yet. They're 28th in goals-per game (2.21), but part of that is because they have a League-low .064 shooting percentage in 5-on-5 play, according to War-on-ice.com.

"In the past, their game was conducive to lapses and those lapses could lead to losing streaks and collapsing in games when they have the lead," Button said. "I don't see that happening anymore."

LOOKING UP

San Jose Sharks (32 points, 5th in Pacific Division)

The Sharks' four-game winning streak prior to losing to the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday propped them up, but a 7-10-4 record from Oct. 16-Nov. 26 might be a stronger indication of what they are this season, which is largely inconsistent.

Since starting the season with three or more goals in each of their first six games, the Sharks have scored three or more in less than half of their games (10-for-23). They have allowed three or more in 14 games. They are 3-5 in one-goal games that don't end in a shootout.

The Sharks have 32 points and 79 goals in 29 games; they had 43 points and 97 goals through 29 games last season.

"I struggled with [general manager Doug Wilson's] commentary at the end of last year, 'We're a tomorrow team,' " Button said. "Really what you're telling your team is we're not that good. That type of commentary, I don't think it serves your team well.

"I think that the manager has created a lot of uncertainty within his group. More than that, I think he's created doubt."

The good news is the Sharks have a chance to gain some traction with a five-game homestand starting Tuesday. They went 3-1-2 on a six-game homestand from Nov. 20-Dec. 4.

Minnesota Wild (29 points, 5th in Central Division)

The Wild control the puck well and have been an effective 5-on-5 team with a plus-2 goal-differential and a .541 Corsi-for percentage (War-on-ice.com), which is second in the League behind the Chicago Blackhawks. But they have one glaring problem holding them back: Minnesota's power play has been bad for the balance of the season.

"The power play is not the end-all and be-all, but their lack of productivity is keeping opponents in the game," Button said. "They were solid last year, but they have to find solutions and results because I have no doubt they have the talent."

The good news is the Wild scored two power-play goals against the Anaheim Ducks this past Friday, bumping their power-play percentage up to 11 percent from 9 percent.

The Wild have four one-goal losses and in those games they went a combined 0-for-15 on the power play. They are 0-for-30 in their 10 regulation losses.

"When your team is so effective at even strength, you have to take advantage on the power play," Button said. "They have the second-highest shots per power-play opportunity in the League so it's not about more shots. It's about attacking in different ways."

Dallas Stars (25 points, 6th in Central Division)

Tyler Seguin (35 points) and Jamie Benn (25 points) are as good as ever, but their production is being masked by the Stars' problems in their own end. Dallas is the NHL's worst defensive team with a League-high 94 goals against in 27 games.

It doesn't help that goalie Kari Lehtonen has a .904 save percentage, which would be a career-worst for him. The Stars goalies as a whole, including Anders Lindback and Jussi Rynnas, have a .894 save percentage.

"I don't think they're easily fixable problems in Dallas because of the goaltender and the defense," Button said.

Colorado Avalanche (24 points, 7th in Central Division)

The Avalanche won the Central Division with 112 points last season despite being 26th in the League in shots on goal differential (minus-257) and 27th in total shot attempts differential (minus-630).

Colorado is again struggling in the possession department (minus-110 in shots on goal differential, minus-304 in total shot attempts differential this season), but now more of those shots against are going in.

Varlamov had a .927 save percentage and 2.41 GAA last season; he has a .909 save percentage and 3.22 GAA this season. Button, though, said Colorado's biggest problem is it doesn't have enough high-end defensemen to clear the puck out of the defensive zone and drive the attack.

"I think Tyson Barrie is a terrific player and I think Erik Johnson can play in your top-four," Button said. "But after that, to me, they have a gaping hole with a bunch of No. 5 or No. 6 defensemen through the rest of their group."

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