The Presidents’ Trophy Matters

For the second consecutive season, the Washington Capitals have captured the Presidents’ Trophy, an award given to the team with the best regular season record. Many players, and fans alike, don’t spend a lot of time celebrating a regular season award, because the reason you play the game is to win the Stanley Cup. But it’s still a significant accomplishment, as acknowledged by Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov:

He makes a good point. And not only is it an accolade, but it guarantees home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, which is a huge plus. But perhaps Kuznetsov’s comments may have been different if he was a Stanley Cup champion?

The Regular Season Counts

No doubt there are players who share Kuznetsov’s sentiments, in particular the ones who have never won a major team award, because as he said, it’s still something. But ask any player who has won a Cup in their career if they enjoy watching the Presidents’ Trophy banner being raised. They’ll likely say it’s nice, but that’s not the one they want.

Even still, the Capitals accomplishment shouldn’t be diminished. The NHL’s regular season is treacherous. It’s long, it’s at times painful, and it requires a lot of gumption. Not only did the Capitals finish with the most points in the league, but they did so as a part of the Metropolitan Division, by far the toughest in the NHL. The regular season lasts from October until April. The playoffs are only a couple of months.

The regular season is the only way to decide which team is truly the best. Because often times, the best statistical team doesn’t end up prevailing to win the Stanley Cup. Postseason success depends a little on luck, when it comes to injuries, and match-ups. You can’t hide in the regular season. The cream will rise to the top.

Despite its negative reputation, the Presidents’ Trophy is something to be celebrated. But hockey culture doesn’t quite lend to that. In defense of said culture, it makes sense. If the hockey year ended after 82 games, then yes, the Presidents’ Trophy would be the most important thing. But it doesn’t. There is more hockey to be played. There is a bigger prize to win.

Last season, the Capitals breezed through the season en route to a 120 point season. They’d have to win their last two games to equal that total this year. But all the points in the world won’t matter if they can’t get passed the second round. In regards to the trophy, Capitals coach Barry Trotz was a little less enthused than his player.

“We didn’t mention it,” Trotz said. “All I said was, ‘Good work by us.’ Then we talked about winning. We said we wanted to win the Metro, and we did.” [NHL]

No Guarantees in the Playoffs

It’s been well documented that the majority of Presidents’ Trophy winners don’t go on to win the Cup. In fact, in the salary cap era (2005-06 until now), only two teams have won both awards, the Blackhawks in 2012-13 and the Red Wings in 2007-08. The poor record causes many to believe there’s a curse associated with winning the regular season, one that the Caps hope to break this year.

“It means we’re best team in the [regular] season,” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said of the Presidents’ Trophy. “But the most important season is coming soon. I think we [are going] in the right way. I think everybody’s focusing, everybody’s playing the right direction.”

Their focus better be in the right direction, because it hasn’t been since Ovechkin broke into the NHL. This will be the third Presidents’ Trophy the team has won under his watch. The first time was in the 2009-10 season, and it ended pretty horribly. They were ousted in the first round by a much-less talented Montreal Canadiens.

Last year, they bowed out in the second round to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Players say all the time that the playoffs is a new season, and judging by the way things have gone for the Capitals, there’s a lot of truth to that notion. Regular season success doesn’t guarantee a thing.

The Door is Open

Sidney Crosby at the 2016 Stanley Cup Parade
(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

The Capitals are odds-on favorites to win the Cup this season. They have arguably their deepest lineup in years, and likely their best chance ever to capture the franchise’s first Cup. But the Capitals will have to shake some playoff demons first. Ovechkin has been in the playoffs eight times. Five of those times the Caps reached the second round. Is this the year they finally go further?

No one has to remind Ovechkin that he has yet to win a Stanley Cup. In fact it’s the one failing grade on his legacy (though some may not see it as a detriment to his greatness. That’s an argument for another day). This season though, is their best chance to get it done. The season-ending injury to Penguins star Kris Letang may have paved the way for the Caps to get past Pittsburgh, if they even have to face them at all.

The Capitals are so much deeper in every position than all the other teams in the Eastern Conference. They may not have the best goalie (that’s Carey Price), or the best all-around player (that’s Sidney Crosby), but the sum of their parts is greater than any one other player. But games aren’t won on paper. They have to get over the hump.

There was a sense last year that the Capitals failure to reach the Conference Final was due to the fact they hadn’t faced any adversity, and thus didn’t have what it took to push through. Unfortunately, that’s still the case this time around. They haven’t had any devastating injuries to learn how to overcome. They haven’t been pushed very hard by any team.

(Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

But maybe their skill is finally going to be enough. There might not be anyone good enough to challenge them. Maybe they will find the intangibles to win to it all. Maybe they’ll be able to dig deep if their backs are against the wall. But the pressure is on now more than ever. If they can’t win the Cup this season with a stacked roster and a relatively “easy” path, when will they ever win it?

According to so many in the hockey world, the President’s Trophy doesn’t matter. But for the Capitals, it’s a testament to their dominance, and it’s not exactly an easy award to win. It does carry significance even though it’s not the ultimate prize. For their sake, however, one would hope it finally translates into a championship.