West Division poised for another season of dominance

Last October, my 3Down colleague Josh Smith and I wrote a pair of columns debating whether or not the CFL should continue separating the league’s nine teams into two divisions. Smith wrote in favor of keeping the divisions, while I argued to do away with them.

One of the primary reasons I believe the divisions should be eliminated is the perennial dominance of the West. The West was 19-9-1 versus the East at the time of my article’s publication last year, a winning percentage of .655. The West went 9-2 against the East following the release of my article, improving its record to 28-11-1 (.700).

And the 2016 season was hardly the start of the trend.

The West is 322-214-2 (.600) versus the East since the 2002 season, a 15-year period of dominance. The East would need to win 108 straight games versus the West to even the winning percentage at .500, the equivalent of almost three full seasons of inter-divisional play.

And nothing has happened this off-season to signal the end of this one-sided era of CFL football.

Khalil Bass (Ottawa), Ryan Phillips (Montreal), and Jabar Westerman (Montreal) were the only regular starters from last year’s West Division to depart for Eastern clubs in free agency this past February. Darian Durant (Montreal) and Keith Shologan (Montreal) also flipped division, though both had fallen out of favor with their former clubs. Every other major signing saw talent heading in the opposite direction.

2016 divisional all-stars Chris Williams (B.C.) and Marc Olivier-Brouliette (Saskatchewan) migrated west, joined by a smattering of accomplished starters in Cory Greenwood (Edmonton), Drake Nevis (Winnipeg), Bryan Hall (Calgary), Johnny Adams (Edmonton), and Chad Owens (Saskatchewan).

Also joining the West Division were Aston Whiteside (Edmonton), Ryan White (Saskatchewan), Dequin Evans (B.C.), Kienan LaFrance (Saskatchewan), Travon Van (Edmonton), Dan LeFevour (Winnipeg), Kendial Lawrence (Edmonton), and Matt Coates (Winnipeg). None of these players started consistently a season ago, but all could contribute in a meaningful way in 2017.

We also shouldn’t forget about three impactful players who also swapped divisions, even if it wasn’t via February’s free agent frenzy. Duron Carter and Kenny Stafford — released by the Alouettes late last season — ended up in Saskatchewan and Winnipeg, respectively. Tristan Okpalaugo also joined the Bombers after a one-year stint in the NFL after starring with Toronto in 2014 and 2015. The Argos made a push to regain Okpalaugo’s services, but were ultimately rebuffed.

On-field talent aside, there are a number of coaching and personnel reasons why the East Division may be in tough come the regular season.

Hamilton lost arguably the CFL’s best defensive coordinator when Orlondo Steinauer left for Fresno State back in December. The Ticats have since replaced Steinauer with long-time special teams coordinator Jeff Reinebold, a move that could hurt the Tabbies on both defence and special teams.

The Argos find themselves rebuilding with a new general manager and head coach. Jim Popp and Marc Trestman bring Grey Cup credibility, but rebuilding with an injury-prone 37-year-old pivot is far from ideal.

Adding veterans Darian Durant (34), Keith Shologan (31), Ryan Phillips (34), and Brian Simmons (32), Montreal now boasts by far the CFL’s oldest roster. The Alouettes have twenty players at or above thirty years of age — no other team has more than fourteen.

Ottawa lost assistant general manager Brock Sunderland to Edmonton where he was named the GM in late April. Losing a key personnel man is tough — especially when it comes five months after losing your best player to retirement.

The West also stands as the main beneficiary of this year’s draft. Making seven of the draft’s first eight picks, it only stands to reason the West will see the most long-term benefit from a draft that was not considered very deep.

For the reasons listed above, it appears that the West Division’s dominance over the East will continue in 2017.

First place in the East Division is up for grabs. First to eight wins gets it.

John Hodge is a CFL insider and draft analyst who has been covering the league since 2014.