It has often been said by hockey fans and pundits alike that the regular season does not really matter. While not entirely true, the 82 games prior to the Stanley Cup Playoffs determine who qualifies and their seeding. That seems to be it. While winning a division or the President’s Trophy as the league’s best overall club in the regular season allows a team to hang a fancy banner in their arena, there is a certain degree of skepticism regarding if they help in any way during the playoffs.
In fact, the President’s Trophy may actually be a harbinger of doom for clubs in the playoffs.
There have been 26 winners of the President’s Trophy since its inception prior to the 1985-86 campaign. As you will see, there is a great deal of variation in playoff success among its winners.
WINNING THE STANLEY CUP: 7 times (1987 Oilers, 1989 Flames, 1994 Rangers, 1999 Stars, 2001 Avalanche, 2002 Red Wings, 2008 Red Wings)
The President’s Trophy should provide a club with a playoff advantage. The league’s best team gets home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, which in itself is often a bringer of great success. However, the winner of the Trophy has only captured Lord Stanley’s Cup 27% of the time. Of the Cup winning group of teams, they all were fairly consistent in the playoffs: four of the seven clubs lost seven games during the playoffs, the rest losing either one more or one less. The Vancouver Canucks are the team which most commonly lost to a Cup-bound President’s Trophy winner (1989, 1994, 2001, 2002).
LOSING IN THE FINALS: 3 times (1990 Bruins, 1995 Red Wings, 2011 Canucks)
If merely making the Stanley Cup Finals is the goal, therefore maximizing the number of possible home games, then the President’s Trophy probably isn’t terrible. While a scant 11.5% of winning clubs lose in the final, roughly 38.5% of all first-overall teams actually make it all the way to the big dance. That’s not a terrible record. The 1995 Red Wings had the fewest losses of these losing teams, with four of their six losses coming in the final round. However, the 2011 Canucks have the un-enviable distinction of having the most losses and most wins in a playoff year by a President’s Trophy winning club that didn’t win the Cup – 15 wins and 10 losses.
LOSING IN THE CONFERENCE FINALS: 5 times (1996 Red Wings, 1997 Avalanche, 1998 Stars, 2003 Senators, 2007 Sabres)
Shockingly, every single team that lost in the conference finals had the identical number of playoff losses: seven. The Detroit Red Wings bounced President’s Trophy winners in the conference finals in two consecutive seasons, 1997 and 1998. The 2003 Ottawa Senators were the team that came the closest to ekeing into the Cup Finals but failed – winning 11 games that playoff year but bowing out in seven games against the New Jersey Devils.
LOSING IN THE SECOND ROUND: 5 times (1986 Oilers, 1988 Flames, 1992 Rangers, 1993 Penguins, 2004 Red Wings)
If you win the President’s Trophy, you probably don’t want to play the Calgary Flames in the second round. In both 1986 and 2004, the Flames faced off against hockey’s best regular season team in the second round and beat them. Oddly, the Flames factor into another quirk of President’s Trophy playoff lore – in 1986, the Edmonton Oilers lost to the Flames despite being first overall. In 1988, the Oilers returned the favour.
LOSING IN THE FIRST ROUND: 6 times (1991 Blackhawks, 2000 Blues, 2006 Red Wings, 2009 Sharks, 2010 Capitals, 2012 Canucks)
Finally, the second-most frequent result for President’s Trophy winners in the post-season has turned out to be…falling flat on their faces in the very first round. Twice the clubs stretched the series to seven games, but most frequently the ouster has taken six games. The 2012 Vancouver Canucks set the record as the President’s Trophy winners that won the least playoff games – one.
BACK-TO-BACK TROPHY WINNERS
On six occasions, a club has won the President’s Trophy in two straight seasons: the Edmonton Oilers (1986-87), the Calgary Flames (1988-89), the Detroit Red Wings (1995-96), the Dallas Stars (1998-99), the Detroit Red Wings (2004 and 2006) and the Vancouver Canucks (2011-12). Only Detroit (second repeat) and Vancouver failed to win during one of their two repeat years.
ANY DIFFERENCE BEFORE THE TROPHY?
Expanding the sample to include the entire expansion era, in the 18 years without a President’s Trophy, the following pattern emerged:
- Team Won Cup: 11 (61%)
- Team Lost in Finals: 3 (17%)
- Lost in Conference Finals/League Semis: 3 (17%)
- Lost in First Round: 1 (5%)
In other words, there is a marked difference in outcomes since the inception of the President’s Trophy. This may be because of the expansion of the NHL to 30 teams. However, it could also be evidence that the trophy itself is cursed – a claim given more weight by first round failures being almost as common as Stanley Cup victories.
In short, being first-overall in the National Hockey League’s regular season is not an overwhelming advantage, as the affected clubs are given a President’s Trophy…of doom.