If you don't know by now the NHL's points system is essentially a competitive funhouse mirror designed to give more teams the appearance they've got a shot at a playoff spot, you should. The league has, to the credit of its business acumen, recognized more teams can sell tickets to fans deeper into their regular-seasons if those fans see the teams are only four or five points out of a post-season berth; now, there's very likely a very slim chance that team can leapfrog a bunch rivals playing each other down the stretch for one of the last playoff positions, but that's not the point. It's a mirage of sorts, and it works.
But the way things are shaping up in the Eastern Conference this year, not even the "loser point" looks like it's going to create the illusion of competitiveness between the teams that make the post-season and the ones that don't. Of course, most teams still have approximately 35 games to play, so you can't be sure about anything just yet, but with the trade deadline set for March 2, it's starting to look like the East's eight non-playoff teams are going to serve as a feeder system for the much tighter West.
As it stands, the Eastern team closest to a wild card slot is the Florida Panthers, but they need to make up seven points to catch the Bruins for that slot. Granted, the Panthers have three games in hand, but they've been sagging of late and could as easily fall out of playoff contention as they could climb back in it. And the team nearest to Florida in the East is the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are nine points behind Boston with the Bruins having one game in hand. It only gets more gruesome after that, and just to show you how difficult it is to make up ground, consider this: the Hurricanes have a 7-1-2 record in their past 10 games, and they trail Boston by 18 points. Unless the Bruins, Rangers or Capitals completely collapse over the next few weeks, it's likely we've already got the East's playoff teams in front of us.
Contrast that with the West, where only a single point separates the eighth-place Calgary Flames from the ninth-place Kings. Colorado is three points behind L.A.; the Dallas Stars are five points back; and six points behind the Kings are the Minnesota Wild. The only two Western teams you can definitively say are out of it are the Arizona Coyotes and Edmonton Oilers – and with the Wild, Stars, Kings, Canucks and Sharks not guaranteed a playoff spot yet still desperate to grab one, the demand for players at the trade deadline should be high.
And with the destinies of so many Eastern teams all but settled, the supply of players could also be high. Western conference playoff contenders knew they'd be bidding on players including Arizona's Antoine Vermette, Toronto's Joffrey Lupul, Buffalo's Chris Stewart, New Jersey's Jaromir Jagr and other capable contributors on bad teams. But if Florida falls out of contention, you can add veterans such as Scottie Upshall and Sean Bergenheim to the mix. The larger number of available players could drive down prices, although that will vary by position: if the Leafs put Cody Franson (a right-shot defenseman) on the market, he'll command a higher price as a rarer commodity.
The trade deadline isn't always the most predictable of affairs, but barring a shocking turnaround, it's safe to assume the deals of consequence this season will send the better players west. The truth is out there, and it's not kind to the East's have-not teams.