How the arms race for trade has further widened the gap between East and West

West is best, East is least. That was the saying for most of my youth when Detroit, Colorado and Dallas ruled the league and it didn’t continue until later in the world after the salary cap. Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, Anaheim, San Jose and Vancouver all topped the league to some degree, while the East lacked the same bite. The East had a few wins and had its own teams to worry about, but most of the time the Stanley Cup went through the West.

This has changed since and especially this year. The West is a mess and the East is a beast. The Stanley Cup is going east this year.

It’s not new. This was true at the start of the year and it has only grown stronger throughout the season with the top five teams in the league all residing on the East Coast. Boston, Carolina, New Jersey, Toronto, Tampa Bay. The top five teams in the league all announce a conference — and the Rangers are not far from making it six teams.

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

Never five. Never six. Unprecedented.

And this year’s trade deadline has only marked it more. The gap will likely only 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. Rangers have added Vladimir Tarasenko, Niko Mikkola and soon may also be Patrick Kane. Big names, big value – all go to the top of the East. With all the commotion, Carolina is unlikely to stay quiet either.

The East is growing stronger out of necessity, an arms race to deadline – and this has led to the continuation of arguably the most lopsided conferences we have ever seen. Based on expected winning percentage, here’s how the current playoff run compares to the previous three seasons.

The projected winning percentage is based on each team’s healthy formation in the playoffs with their starting goaltender.

In general, expecting to win 60% of games against an average team is the mark of a bona fide competitor. Usually, there are about four to five teams around that range split between the two conferences (last year being an exception to the rule due to a severe lack of league-wide parity). This means that being in that range usually means a team is good enough to be one of the top three teams in its conference.

Not this year. Not in the East.

This year there are four teams as usual, but none from the West, where neither team wants to get ahead. Colorado is close when healthy (and likely gets there if they maintain their current game), but the Lightning are there to add to the imbalance. Add Rangers to the mix and six of the league’s top eight teams should come from the East.

This also applies to conference statistics this year. The East has a collective plus-164 goal differential this season, with the top five, in particular, taking a beating. Boston, Carolina, New Jersey, Toronto and Tampa Bay have a combined 106-43-13 record against the West this season — a 114-point pace and .654 winning percentage.

This was mostly the case already before the arms race, but between the 11 new names already added, the top six teams in the East added nearly 10 worth wins. Boston, Toronto, New Jersey and the Rangers each added two or more wins to their bottom line. It’s a big problem. (And that’s not including the fact that adding Bo Horvat would make the Islanders an average playoff team in the West rather than an eighth fiddler in the East).

It’s going to be a glove and that means two very good teams going home at the start of the first round. It also means that the team that comes out of the East is likely to be the favorite once they come all the way.

Generally speaking, one would expect the chances of winning the Stanley Cup to be split fairly evenly between the two conferences. And it usually is. That was all of last year when the East’s collective winning odds hovered between 45-54% throughout the year. This year, they started at 54%, but have since increased enormously.

For those who follow the daily playoff odds page, this should come as no surprise, but the total number is still staggering: a very handsome 69%.

Boston being miles ahead of everyone else is obviously part of the problem and the Bruins would be heavy favorites against any team coming out West. But it’s also the fact that if Toronto, Carolina, New Jersey or Tampa Bay are successful, those teams would also be favorites against any team in the West. It’s quite unheard of.

That’s how it is right now — and the chasm between the two conferences may get even bigger as newcomers acclimate to their new teams. Chances are Colorado will figure things out and join the beasts from the East and we also still have quite a deadline for the West to join the arms race. But for now, all is quiet on the western front as the east prepares for an all-out attack. The deadline has further widened an already large gap between the two conferences and it is up to the West to close this gap.

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

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

Data via Hockey-Reference and Evolving Hockey

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

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