NHL arms race heats up as East contenders go all-in ahead of trade deadline

The Eastern Conference playoffs are about to be a bloodbath with the Bruins, Leafs, Lightning, Devils and Rangers (and likely the Hurricanes) all beefing up.

The New York Rangers got the NHL's pre-deadline arms race started with the Vladimir Tarasenko trade. (Getty)

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

And for sixteen years, this principle largely operated as intended. This year, the Eastern Conference powers are all going all-in — with several teams bottoming out in an attempt to secure Connor Bedard this summer — while the Western Conference is sitting idly by. The East is absolutely loaded amid a heated arms race, creating the circumstances for what could be a playoff bloodbath for the ages.

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

The Bruins

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

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

It barely cost the Bruins a thing. Boston acquired Orlov and depth 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 first-round picks are created equal! 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 some ancillary picks and Smith — who never fit into the Bruins plans — account for virtually nothing.

The league’s best team just got markedly better, but it won’t be an easy pathway to the final.

The Maple Leafs

Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas is in the middle of a crucial season of his tenure. Despite building teams that have thrived in the regular season, the six consecutive entry-round losses in the postseason have unfortunately defined this iteration of the roster. Everything rides on advancing past the first round and beyond, so Dubas dug 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 brokering the deal by retaining 25 percent of O’Reilly’s salary.

We’ll have a deeper dive on 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 for a hat-trick against the Sabres last Tuesday and Toronto’s second line can flummox opponents with three forwards who can score and create in abundance with two elite faceoff men.

Marner has been one of the NHL’s best defensive forwards and remains a premier playmaker as well. O’Reilly was paired with Tavares and Nylander against the Kraken on Sunday and the Maple Leafs cooked one of the NHL’s best offensive teams in the process. Acciari has stabilized the fourth line, he hasn’t had a bad game with the Maple Leafs yet and Toronto’s bottom-six has benefited from the domino effect.

One of the common themes thus far is that the East’s elite have been reticent to give up real roster players, preferring to deal picks and prospects instead. Dubas said he wanted to reward this year’s group and we imagine many of his peers feel the same way.

The team also added some quality depth pieces on Monday, acquiring defenceman Jake McCabe and forward Sam Lafferty from the Blackhawks

The Devils

New Jersey was always bound to be the most interesting team in the deadline, emerging as a genuine contender ahead of schedule, led by the dynamic Jack Hughes and playing at a turbocharged pace. Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald had a ton of options — although the team only had $2 million in deadline cap space. It also boasted the deepest prospect pool in the NHL and could’ve pursued 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 retained by the Sharks) along with prospect Timur Ibragimov, defensemen Scott Harrington and Santeri Hatakka, goaltender Zachary Emond and a fifth-round pick in the 2024, in exchange for a conditional 2023 first-round pick, a 2024 conditional second-round pick, a 2024 seventh-round pick, Shakir Mukhamadullin, Nikita Okhotyuk, Andreas Johnsson and Fabian Zetterlund.

It was reported that the Devils won’t immediately sign Meier to an extension, but who cares? There’s plenty of time for both parties to get acquainted with each other, while Meier’s $10-million qualifying offer this summer looms in the distance. New Jersey received a player who ranks second in individual expected goals at 5-on-5 via Natural Stat Trick, first in individual scoring chances and third in rush attempts — new teammates Miles Wood and Jack Hughes rank fourth and fifth, respectively.

Meier is a prototype for the modern power forward, he joins an explosive Devils offense that will provide him with superior linemates and, at 26, he fits the timeline of the team’s young, burgeoning 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 well worth it. New Jersey didn’t have to trade Luke Hughes, Simon Nemec, Alexander Holtz or Dawson Mercer in order to receive Meier. It kept all of its best future assets while improving its short-term outlook. It’s a home run for Fitzgerald, but also a necessary move to keep up in the East.

The Rangers

New York started the arms race, after all. After weeks of speculation, the Rangers swung 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 named to the All-Star Game and he’s certainly worth top-six minutes. If you place Tarasenko against bottom-six opponents, he’s going to light them up, and given that the Rangers are prone to experimenting with their lines to begin with, there’s ample time to figure out where he’s best suited.

Patrick Kane fumed when Tarasenko was dealt to the Rangers, but the Blackhawks winger may have got his wish, as the Blackhawks and Rangers appear to be putting the final touches on a deal at the time of this filing. Kane played his entire career with the Blackhawks and he put on a Jekyll-and-Hyde act during his final weeks. He looked completely disinterested during a 5-2 loss to the Maple Leafs on Feb. 15, only to scorch them with a hat-trick on Feb. 19, spurring his current run of seven goals and 10 points in his last four games.

Kane has a significantly higher ceiling than Tarasenko at this juncture of their careers, but they provide the exact same qualities for the Rangers: they’re both high-end (game-breaking in Kane’s case, when he wants to be) offensive talents who are completely negligent defensively. Will it matter in the playoffs? If the Hurricanes clinch the Metropolitan, the Battle of the Hudson River will reach heights not seen since 1994.

The Hurricanes

Carolina is hovering over the deadline, seemingly biding its time. Max Pacioretty and his $7-million salary have been tacked onto long-term injured reserve (LTIR) after Pacioretty suffered another Achilles injury. The league’s best shot-suppression team now carries $10 million in deadline cap space and owner Tom Dundon said his team would be more aggressive than ever.

Now the Hurricanes are zeroing in on 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 offensively, while submitting league-average defense, so putting him on a juggernaut like the Hurricanes that 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 have provided a blueprint for contention: trade your first-round picks for analytically-sound forwards who can play multiple positions and roles, while supplementing a star-studded core.

Watching their divisional rivals make their moves, Julien BriseBois got in on the fireworks Sunday as the Lightning acquired Tanner Jeannot from the Predators in exchange for defenseman Cal Foote, a first-round pick in 2025 (Top 10 protected), a second-round selection 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 opportunity in a player, they’ve historically been correct through BriseBois’s tenure.

Welcome to the Eastern Conference arms race. There are six powers going for broke, five of whom have made moves that improved their rosters as the Hurricanes survey the market, while most Western Conference squads have either turned into sellers, made their move (I guess we can’t ignore the Golden Knights acquiring Ivan Barbashev or the Jets acquiring Nino Niederreiter, but they’re only deals of consequence thus far!) or seem poised to fumble ahead of Friday by sitting idly by — we’re looking at the Oilers here, while the Avalanche get a pass for winning it all last year.

Everyone’s going all-in, the opportunity cost appears to be a protected first-round pick plus a non-roster player, and there’s a consensus forming that it’s well worth going after roster players who are made available. Karlsson and Jakob Chychrun are still out there, but the market is drying up quickly.