How the NHL trade deadline arms race has widened the gap between East and West even further

West is best, East is least. That was the saying for most of my youth when Detroit, Colorado and Dallas ran the league, and it only continued later in the world after the salary cap. Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, Anaheim, San Jose and Vancouver all dominated the league to some degree while the East lacked the same bite. The East got a couple of wins and had its own teams to fear – but for the most part the Stanley Cup went through the West.

It has changed since then and especially this year. The West is a mess and the East is a beast. The Stanley Cup goes through the East this year.

It is not new. That was true to start the year and has only been reinforced throughout the season with the league’s top five teams all residing on the East Coast. Boston, Carolina, New Jersey, Toronto, Tampa Bay. The league’s top five teams all come from one conference – and the Rangers aren’t far off making it six teams.

In the entire salary cap era, there has not been a single season where the top three teams were from one conference, let alone five or six. Since the league expanded to 21 teams, there have only been two instances where the top three teams were from one conference: 1990–91 (with a fourth-place tie) and 1993–94.

Never five. Never six. Outstanding.

And this year’s trade deadline has only put a stamp on that further. The gap is only going to widen between the top of the East and the top of the West.

Boston added Dmitry Orlov and Garnet Hathaway. New Jersey added Timo Meier. Toronto added Ryan O’Reilly, Jake McCabe, Noel Acciari and Sam Lafferty. Tampa Bay added Tanner Jeannot. The Rangers added Vladimir Tarasenko, Niko Mikkola and soon possibly Patrick Kane as well. Big names, big value – everyone goes to the top of the East. With all that commotion, Carolina is unlikely to stay quiet either.

The East is strengthening out of necessity, an arms race with deadlines – and it has led to the continuation of arguably the most unbalanced conferences we have ever seen. Based on expected winning percentage here is how the current playoff run compares to the previous three seasons.

Expected winning percentage is based on each team’s healthy playoff lineup with their starting goaltender.

In general, expecting to win 60 percent of games against an average team is the hallmark of a credible contender. Typically, there are four-to-five teams around that area split between the two conferences (with last year being an exception to the rule due to a severe lack of league-wide parity). So, being in that range usually means a team is good enough to be a top-three team in their conference.

Not this year. Not in the east.

This year there are four teams as usual, but none from Western Norway, where no team wants to advance. Colorado is close when healthy (and will likely get there if it continues to play), but the Lightning are there to add to the imbalance. Add the Rangers to the mix and six of the league’s top eight teams are expected to come from the East.

This also applies to conference statistics this year. The East has a collective goal differential of plus-164 this season, with the top five especially across the board. Boston, Carolina, New Jersey, Toronto and Tampa Bay have a combined record of 106-43-13 against the West this season – a pace of 114 points and a .654 winning percentage.

That was largely the case even before the arms race, but between the 11 new names already added, the East’s top six teams have added nearly 10 wins of value. Boston, Toronto, New Jersey and the Rangers have each added two or more wins to their bottom line. It’s a big deal. (And that doesn’t include that the addition of Bo Horvat would make the Islanders an average playoff team in the West instead of eighth fiddle in the East.)

It’s going to be a gauntlet, and that means two extremely good teams will go home early in Round 1. It also means that whichever team comes out of the East will likely be the favorite when they go all the way.

Generally speaking, you’d expect the odds to win the Stanley Cup to be fairly evenly split between both conferences. And that’s usually the case. It was the whole of last year when the East’s overall winning chances fluctuated between 45 and 54 per cent throughout the year. This year they started at 54 percent, but have climbed enormously since.

For those who follow the daily playoff odds site, it shouldn’t be a surprise, but the total number is still staggering: a very pleasant 69 percent.

Boston being miles ahead of everyone is obviously part of the problem, and the Bruins would be heavy favorites against any team coming out of the West. But there’s also the fact that if any of Toronto, Carolina, New Jersey or Tampa Bay pull it off – those teams will also be favorites against any team in the West. That’s pretty unheard of.

That’s just the way it is right now — and the gulf between the two conferences could widen even further as the newcomers acclimate to their new teams. It’s likely that Colorado will figure things out and join the beasts of the east, and we also still have a whole deadline for the west to join the arms race. But for now it has been quiet on the western front while the east prepares for a large-scale attack. The deadline has made an already large gap between the two conferences even bigger, and it is up to the best of the West to bridge that gap.

There have been times when one conference has been much scarier than the other, and for a long time it was the West. But now it is the East’s turn and the difference between the two has never been so massive. The difference between East and West is in uncharted waters, an unprecedented difference in conference strength we have literally never seen before.

Buckle up for the postseason, it’s going to be epic.

Data via Hockey-Reference and Evolving Hockey

(Top photo by Ryan O’Reilly: Jamie Sabau / USA Today)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *