How the NHL trade deadline arms race has further widened the East-West divide

West is better, East less. That was the saying during most of my younger years when Detroit, Colorado and Dallas ran the league and only later continued in the world of the post-salary cap. Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, Anaheim, San Jose, and Vancouver dominated the league to some extent while the East lacked the same role. The East had two wins and had their own teams to fear – but for the most part, the Stanley Cup went through the West.

This has changed since then and especially this year. The West is a mess, the East is a beast. The Stanley Cup is running across the East this year.

This is nothing new. It was a true start to the year and only amplified over the course of the season as the top five teams in the league were all based on the East Coast. Boston, Carolina, New Jersey, Toronto, Tampa Bay. The top five teams in the league come from one conference – and the Rangers aren’t far from making six teams.

In the entire salary cap era, there hasn’t been a single season where he’s the top three The 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 have been from a single conference: 1990-91 (with a tie for fourth) and 1993-94.

never five. never six. Unprecedented.

This year’s trade deadline has only led to more sealing. The gap is likely to only widen between the East Summit and the West Summit.

Boston added Dmitry Orlov and Garnet Hathaway. New Jersey Timo Meyer added. Toronto added Ryan O’Reilly, Jake McCabe, Noel Acciari and Sam Lafferty. Tampa Bay added Tanner Ginot. Rangers have added Vladimir Tarasenko, Niko Mikkola and soon Patrick Kane as well. Big names, great value – they all go to East Summit. With all the chaos, Karolina is unlikely to remain calm either.

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Bolstered by necessity, the East is a deadline arms race–and this has led to the most lopsided conference we’ve ever seen. Based on expected win percentage, here’s how the current race stacks up compared to the previous three seasons.

The expected winning percentage depends on each team’s healthy lineup with the starting goalkeeper.

In general, expecting to win 60 percent of matches against an average team is the hallmark of a strong competitor. Typically, there are four to five teams around that range split between the two conferences (though last year was an exception to the rule due to a severe lack of wide parity). So, being in this range usually means that the 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 the West, as neither team wants to move on. Colorado is close when healthy (and will likely get there if it continues its current play), but the Lightning is there to add to the imbalance. Add Rangers to the mix and it is expected that six of the eight best teams in the league will hail from the East.

This applies to this year’s conference stats as well. The East has a -164 plus collegiate goal difference this season with the top five, in particular, running roughshod over. Boston, Carolina, New Jersey, Toronto and Tampa Bay have all posted a record of 106-43-13 against the West this season – a pace of 114 points and a winning percentage of 0.654.

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

It will be a challenge and that means two very good teams will go home early in the first round. It also means that whichever team comes out of the East will likely be the favorite once it makes it to the end.

In general, you would expect the odds of winning the Stanley Cup to be evenly divided between the two conferences. This is usually the case. It was the entirety of last year when East’s collective chances of winning fluctuated between 45 and 54 percent over the course of the year. This year they started at 54 percent, but have gone up dramatically since then.

For those who follow the daily match odds page, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the total number is still staggering: a very nice 69 percent.

Boston being miles ahead of everyone else is clearly part of the problem and the Bruins would be strong favorites against any team that came out of the West. But it’s also the fact that if any team from Toronto, Carolina, New Jersey, or Tampa Bay is successful, those teams will also be favorites against any team in the West. This is unheard of before.

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That is the case now – and the gap between the two conferences may grow even larger as the newcomers adjust to their new teams. Colorado will probably figure things out and join the Beasts of the East and we also still have a full deadline for the West to join the arms race. But for the time being, it was completely quiet on the Western Front as the East prepared for an all-out offensive. The deadline has made an already significant gap between the two conferences even larger, and it is up to West to bridge that gap.

There were times when one conference was scarier than the other and for a long time that conference was the West. But now it is the turn of the East and the difference between the two has never been so stark. The difference between East and West lies in uncharted waters, an unprecedented difference in conference power that we have not seen before.

Get ready for the postseason, it’s going to be epic.

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

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