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From the Press-Box: Winnipeg, A Smash Hit

Paul Bruno

Paul Bruno is co-host of the RotoWire fantasy hockey podcast, The Great Ones. He has been an accredited member of the Toronto sports media for more than 20 years. Paul also helps with RW's DFS podcast and is a contributing writer for RW NFL, MLB and CFL content. Follow him on twitter: @statsman22.

Today in From the Pressbox:

The Jets have been a smash hit in their first year back in Winnipeg. Which of their players have really thrived? The struggles continue for the San Jose Sharks. Crosby and Letang return in Pittsburgh - how good has it been so far? Kessel under fire in Toronto - fair or unfair criticism? Dallas Stars quietly lead Pacific Division - some unsung heroes over there get their due. In St. Louis, some talented players are readying for a return to active duty. Alexander Radulov's return to the NHL could be a real bonus for Nashville.

A year ago, the Atlanta Thrashers were on the verge of completing another non-playoff campaign and they were not drawing enough interest in a large local market, causing the NHL executive to begin a search for another home for this floundering team. On the surface, particularly to US-based ownerships, Winnipeg, Manitoba may have seemed a bit of an odd choice. This central Canadian city is only a fraction of the cosmopolitan city of Atlanta. The big difference is that Winnipeg is a hockey haven, a city that has craved for a return to the NHL for the last 15 years.

This season, there has been a virtual love-in at Jets' home games, which has turned their arena, the MTS Centre into one of the league's toughest rinks for opposing teams to play in. The Jets 23-11-4 record on home ice is a large reason why they remain within close proximity of a playoff spot at this time.

Several of their players have surpassed expectations to thrive in these new surroundings, but none more than hulking winger Blake Wheeler, born in nearby Robbinsdale, Minnesota. Wheeler has already accumulated 59 points, 14 more than any of his first three seasons in the NHL. Similarly, Evander Kane has posted a career-high 28 goals and is currently on a torrid pace with 19 points in his last 15 games. The responsibility of team leadership is in the capable hands of robust defenseman Dustin Byfuglien (46 points) and their rugged captain Andrew Ladd (44 points). In goal, Ondrej Pavelec has entertained the home fans with an effective and sometimes acrobatic style, to the tune of a 2.84 goals against average and a .909 save percentage in 61 appearances. So the Jets have certainly given their fans some quality entertainment and they have a core of players to identify with and watch the club build around.---a solid first year in their new surroundings.

While the vibe is positive in Winnipeg, it is decidedly different with the San Jose Sharks, a team that has been perceived as a perennial underachiever. This situation appears to be repeating itself once again as the Sharks are in a crowded race for the final playoff spot. Currently in 10th place in the West, the Sharks may have created an early hole for themselves when they dealt away Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi to Minnesota for Martin Havlat and Brent Burns. The Sharks have evolved as a top-heavy team where a core of four players (Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski). Oddly, this was what many followers felt they were, even before this trade. Looking at the numbers, the departed players have tallied 77 points (Heatley, 46; Setoguchi, 31) including 38 goals, while Havlat has only six goals and 21 points in yet another injury-plagued season. Burns has had a decent year on the Sharks' blueline with 10 goals and 35 points, but the question remains, was it worth it for the sharks to hamper their offensive depth.

Looking ahead, Thornton and Marleau are getting into the latter stages of their careers and may start to see a natural regression in their scoring totals over the next few years. That means there is a real likelihood that this may be something of a last gasp for a team that has performed very well over a string of several regular seasons only to underwhelm in the playoffs. A serious rebuild is on the horizon in San Jose.

Pittsburgh remains a focus of the hockey world because hockey fans are wondering how good the Penguins can be, now that Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang are back in the fold.  Well, the Pens have gone 3-0-1 since these stars returned (they had also won their previous nine games before the reinforcements returned), outscoring opponents by a 20- 8 margin. Crosby has nine points and a (+7) rating, while playing an average of 17 minutes per game (about four to five minutes less than his usual playing time. Letang, whose concussion was not as serious as Crosby, has returned to pace the Pens with an average of 24 minutes of playing time and added three assists along with a (+6) rating.

Nitpickers are still nervous about Crosby, citing the fact that all of his points in this return are assists, but he is skating very well and is very involved in the offense, despite playing most of his regular shifts with third line wingers. Letang's profile has been largely overshadowed here, but it is worth pointing out that only Ottawa's Eric Karlsson has outpaced his rate of scoring production (34 points in 44 games played) among the top scoring defensemen in the league.

Make no mistake, the Penguins are a much more imposing team and perhaps the Cup favorite as we look ahead to the post-season.

The post-season is now a pipe-dream (again) for the Maple Leafs and their fans, with the annual hand wringing and finger pointing in the media working at full capacity to lay blame. Curiously, a large percentage of observers are aiming their barbs at Phil Kessel.

My belief is that much of the criticism aimed at the Toronto sniper is unfair. At this time, as he has been for the entire season, Kessel ranks among the league's top five scorers with 36 goals and 76 points. It's been a long time since any Leaf has been so prolific on offense. He has achieved these totals while playing with Tyler Bozak, an undrafted US College graduate as his full time center. Of course, much of his success is due to an excellent collaboration with a reborn Joffrey Lupul, one of the league's most remarkable comeback stories. Still, with Lupul injured and missing from the last few games, Kessel has maintained his torrid scoring pace, despite increased attention from all opponents. This guy has topped the 30-goal mark for four straight years (less than five NHLers can make a similar claim) and he is a threat to do something special every time he touches the puck. Critics will point to his (-8) rating, but that is more a reflection on his line and his team. Leaf fans who are onside with criticism of Kessel would rue the day if he was ever dealt because he represents a true and rare asset that needs to remain, and continue to be a centerpiece of the rebuild, in Toronto.

The Dallas Stars are one of the most overlooked teams, certainly among the league's six division leaders. That's because of the relatively low profile of some of their best players. No one epitomizes that profile more than winger Loui Eriksson, who has been among the top-scoring left wingers in the NHL during the past four seasons. He is churning out another stellar campaign to pace this attack with 68 points. Michael Ryder has returned to the 30-goal plateau (after a four-year decline) to lead the club in that category. Jamie Benn has continued to improve on his solid offensive totals for a third straight year. Captain Brendan Morrow and feisty Steve Ott provide decent secondary scoring and much of the team's toughness. On defense, Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley lead a group of young and improving defensemen, who are solid at both ends of the rink. In goal, Kari Lehtonen is enjoying the best year of his career (which began as the second overall pick from the 2002 Draft) as he has a 2.26 goals against average and a .923 save percentage.

It doesn't take long to realize that the Stars are aligned for the possibility of a lengthy playoff run in Dallas during the upcoming post-season.

Two teams to watch in the next couple of weeks:

St Louis - The league leaders look forward to a boost from the return of Alex Steen and Andy McDonald. Forgotten by many, due to the Blues' resounding performance this year, is the fact that both players, who have missed a large portion of this season, have been among the Blues' leading scorers when they have been healthy. They could provide a real shot in the arm as the Blues prepare for their reappearance in the playoffs.

Nashville - The Predators are in the thick of a heated race in the league's most competitive division, despite the fact that their leading scorer (Martin Erat) has only 57 points. They have relied on a deep defense led by Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, along with the superb goaltending of Pekka Rinne. They are on the verge of adding a true sniper as former Predator Alexander Radulov, who is returning from a four-year stint in the KHL. He enjoyed his previous two-year stint with Nashville and returns to the club at a time when NHL roster movement is very limited. He was retained as property of Nashville throughout his European hockey tenure and now the Predators look to collect that dividend.

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