Arms race intensifies as Eastern contenders go all-in End-shutdown

Since the introduction of the salary cap during the 2005-06 season, parity has been one of the mainstays of the modern NHL. The cap was instituted in part to prevent big-market teams from monopolizing the league through free agency and to restore competitive balance.

And for sixteen years, this principle worked largely as intended. This year, the Eastern Conference powerhouses are going all out, with several teams bottoming out in an attempt to secure Connor Bedard this summer, while the Western Conference sits idly by. The East is absolutely loaded in the middle of a heated arms race, setting the stage for what could be a playoff bloodbath forever.

Heading into Monday’s games, the Boston Bruins, Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey Devils, Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers are the top six teams in the NHL in points (Vegas is ahead of New York in shooting percentage). points) and all six teams have improved remarkably, or in Carolina’s case, have the assets and cap space to make a major acquisition before Friday’s deadline.

the bruins

Let’s start with the league-leading Bruins, who threaten to break the all-time record. for points other percentage of profit through an 82-game regular season. People often like to talk about team identities, but the reality is that hockey is subject to so much random variation that these concepts are often just ideas. Boston is built differently.

Hampus Lindholm and Brandon Carlo told me earlier this month that the Bruins pride themselves on having mobile defenders who are encouraged to join the run, while creating ample opportunities for their forwards. Lindholm is having the best season of his career along with Carlo, and Charlie McAvoy is firmly among the best defensemen in the league. And now the Bruins just gained another mobile defender with Cup-winning experience in Dmitry Orlov, who was logging just under 23 minutes per game with the Capitals.

It hardly cost the Bruins anything. Boston acquired Orlov and safety forward Garnet Hathaway for Craig Smith, a 2023 first-round pick, a 2025 second-round pick and a 2024 third-round pick. Boston understands a simple concept: Not all picks! first round are the same! If the Bruins are confident they can win the Stanley Cup, and they should be, then the projected 32nd pick in next summer’s draft, plus a few ancillary picks and Smith, who never quite fit into the Bruins’ plans, don’t represent nearly as much. nothing.

The best team in the league has just improved remarkably, but it won’t be an easy road to the final.

maple leaves

Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas is in the midst of a pivotal season of his tenure. Despite building teams that have thrived in the regular season, six straight entry-round losses in the postseason have sadly defined this iteration of the roster. It all hinges on advancing past the first round and beyond, so Dubas reached into his bag and acquired Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari from the St. Louis Blues, in exchange for 2023 first- and third-round picks. a 2024 second-round pick. , Mikhail Abramov and Adam Gaudette. Toronto also received prospect Josh Pillar in exchange for a 2025 fourth-round pick, sent to Minnesota for negotiating the deal by retaining 25 percent of O’Reilly’s salary.

We’ll get a deeper dive into how O’Reilly has fared with the Maple Leafs this week, but it’s already paid immediate dividends. Playing his first four games with John Tavares and Mitch Marner, O’Reilly exploded with a hat-trick against the Sabers last Tuesday and Toronto’s second line can baffle opponents with three forwards who can score and create galore with two. elite men facing each other.

Marner has been one of the best defensive forwards in the NHL and also continues to be a top-tier playmaker. O’Reilly was paired with Tavares and Nylander against the Kraken on Sunday and the Maple Leafs put together one of the best offensive teams in the NHL in the process. Acciari has stabilized the fourth line, has yet to have a bad game with the Maple Leafs, and Toronto’s last six have benefited from the domino effect.

One of the common themes thus far is that the Eastern elite has been reluctant to give up actual roster players, preferring instead to trade picks and prospects. Dubas said that he wanted to reward this year’s group and we imagine that many of his colleagues feel the same way.

The demons

New Jersey was always destined to be the most interesting team at the deadline, emerging as a true contender ahead of schedule, led by the dynamic Jack Hughes and playing at a fast pace. Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald had plenty of options, even though the team only had $2 million in time-limit slot. He also had the deepest prospect pool in the NHL and could have gone any route they wanted.

Fitzgerald pulled off a heist for Timo Meier, widely considered the best player available before Friday’s deadline, acquiring the big, talented winger (with 50 percent of his salary withheld by the Sharks) along with the prospect. Timur Ibragimov, defensemen Scott Harrington and Santeri Hatakka, goaltender Zachary Emond and a fifth-round pick in 2024, in exchange for a conditional 2023 first-round pick, a conditional 2024 second-round pick, a seventh-round pick from 2024, Shakir Mukhamadullin, Nikita Okhotyuk, Andreas Johnsson and Fabian Zetterlund.

It’s been reported that the Devils won’t immediately sign Meier to an extension, but who cares? There is plenty of time for both sides to get to know each other, as Meier’s $10 million qualifying offer this summer looms in the distance. New Jersey welcomed a player who ranks second in individual 5v5 expected goals via Natural Stats Trickfirst in individual goal chances and third in running attempts: new teammates Miles Wood and Jack Hughes rank fourth and fifth, respectively.

Meier is a prototype for the modern power forward, joining an explosive Devils offense that will give him better line mates and, at 26, fitting into the timeline of the team’s rising young stars. It seems likely that the Devils will sign Meier at the end of the season (winning makes everything easier), but even if they don’t, the opportunity cost was worth it. New Jersey didn’t have to trade Luke Hughes, Simon Nemec, Alexander Holtz or Dawson Mercer to welcome Meier. He kept all of his best future assets while improving his short-term outlook. He’s a home run for Fitzgerald, but also a necessary move to stay in the East.

the rangers

After all, New York started the arms race. After weeks of speculation, the Rangers made a trade for Vladimir Tarasenko, acquiring the 31-year-old winger and Niko Mikkola in exchange for a conditional 2023 first-round pick, a 2024 fourth-round pick, Sammy Blais and Hunter Skinner. Tarasenko may not be the player he used to be, but he was an All-Star and is certainly worth getting into the first six minutes. If you put Tarasenko up against the last six opponents, he’ll light them up, and since the Rangers are prone to experimenting with their lines to begin with, there’s plenty of time to figure out where he fits best.

Patrick Kane was furious when Tarasenko was traded to Rangers, but the Blackhawks winger may have gotten his wish, as the Blackhawks and Rangers appear to be putting the finishing touches on a deal at the time of this filing. Kane played his entire career with the Blackhawks and acted like Jekyll and Hyde during his final weeks. He seemed completely uninterested during a 5-2 loss to the Maple Leafs on February 15, only to burn them out with a hat-trick on February 19, spurring his current streak of seven goals and 10 points in his last four games.

Kane has a significantly higher ceiling than Tarasenko at this point in their careers, but they bring the exact same qualities to the Rangers: Both are top-tier offensive talents (innovative in Kane’s case, when he wants to be). they are completely negligent defensively. Will it matter in the playoffs? If the Hurricanes take over the Metropolitan, the Hudson River battle will reach heights not seen since 1994.

the Hurricanes

Carolina approaches the deadline, apparently biding her time. Max Pacioretty and his $7 million salary were placed on long-term injured reserve (LTIR) after Pacioretty suffered another Achilles tendon injury. The best shot suppression team in the league now has $10 million in cap space and owner Tom Dundon said his team would be more aggressive than ever.

Now the Hurricanes are concentrating on the targets, but the board is drying up. Meier is gone, Kane will be gone soon, O’Reilly is thriving with the Maple Leafs. Erik Karlsson may be the home run swing the Hurricanes take — he’s been ridiculous on offense, while putting up league-average defense, so putting him on a giant like the Hurricanes who chokes out opponents would be almost unfair.

The Lightning

Tampa Bay remains the class of the East until proven otherwise. In years past, the Lightning provided a blueprint for the contest: Trade your first-round picks for analytically strong forwards who can fill multiple positions and roles while complementing a star-studded core.

Watching their divisional rivals make their moves, Julien BriseBois took part in the fireworks Sunday when the Lightning acquired Tanner Jeannot from the Predators for defenseman Cal Foote, a first-round pick in 2025 (Top 10 protected), a pick second-round picks in 2024, as well as third-, fourth-, and fifth-round picks in 2023. Jeannot’s offense has fallen off a cliff this season, but when the Lightning see an opportunity in a player, they’ve historically been right during BriseBois’ tenure. .

Welcome to the Eastern Conference arms race. There are six powerhouses going all out, five of which have made roster-enhancing moves as the Hurricanes survey the market, while most Western Conference teams have either turned sellers or made their move. (I guess we can’t ignore the Golden Knights Ivan acquiring Barbashev or the Jets acquiring Nino Niederreiter, but these are only major deals so far!) or seem prepared to waste time before Friday if they sit idly by : We’re looking at the Oilers here, while the Avalanche gets a pass. for winning it all last year.

Everyone is going all-in, the opportunity cost appears to be a protected first-round pick plus an unrostered player, and a consensus is forming that roster players who are available are worth going after. Karlsson and Jakob Chychrun are still around, but the market is drying up fast.

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