Monday, 23 April 2012

Maybe Don't Bet On These Guys

If there is one team that you should avoid betting on in the playoffs, I'd wager that the best regular-season team is the one that should be never picked by pundits in playoff predictions. Don't get me wrong when I say that the best regular season team shouldn't be viewed as a Stanley Cup favorite because they should. After all, they endured the the regular season's ebbs and flows to come out on top as the best team in the NHL, and that's always an encouraging sign if you're a fan. But the playoffs are a different breed, and the stakes change from the regular season as players dig deeper and play harder than seen in the regular season. Just because a team was the best regular-season team doesn't mean that they are built for the playoffs in any way. In fact, the team that wins the President's Trophy is probably one of the few teams I wouldn't put faith in due to the track record of losing in the playoffs that seems to follow the President's Trophy.

With the Los Angeles Kings ousting the Vancouver Canucks, another President's Trophy winner will be watching a team that finished below them in the standings hoist the Stanley Cup as NHL Champions this spring. Los Angeles played extremely well, limiting the Canucks chances while capitalizing on their own chances, and the Canucks were sent home for the second year in a row with nothing to show for all their regular season success. If the playoffs are the culmination of all the hard work a team puts in over the course of an 82-game season, there is a bitter taste when a President's Trophy team walks down the hallway to the dressing room for the final time in a season without bringing the Stanley Cup with them.

It's not like Vancouver is the only team to have been ousted as the top team in the NHL's regular season. Since the introduction of the President's Trophy for the 1986-87 season, only seven teams who have won the President's Trophy have gone on to capture the Stanley Cup. If you're keeping score at home, that's seven teams in twenty-six attempts - a .269 winning percentage. That's not such a good winning percentage when you're looking at the team that had the most success in the regular season against all other teams. But, as stated above, the playoffs are a different beast.

In terms of making it to the Stanley Cup Final, there have been seven teams that have won the Silver Chalice, but three other President's Trophy-winning teams that have lost in the final. That's a .385 winning percentage - slightly better than a 3-in-8 chance of appearing in the Stanley Cup Final. While any of the sixteen teams that start the playoffs would take that chance of appearing in the Stanley Cup Final, the best regular season team would probably scoff at that percentage and take their chances. After all, five of every eight President's Trophy-winning teams would be on the losing end of that winning percentage.

Where it gets scary for the President's Trophy-winning team is in the opening round of the playoffs. The NHL's best regular-season team has taken a first-round exit six times since the introduction of the trophy, giving the best regular-season team only a .769 winning percentage against the eighth-seed in its conference. While that would be a great winning percentage in the regular season, there is a 1-in-4 chance that the best team in the NHL will be heading home after the first-round of the playoffs, and I guarantee you that any eighth-seeded team would be salivating at those odds.

Where I'm going to throw a monkey wrench into these proceedings is here. The President's Trophy winning-team, if they survive the first-round of the playoffs, should be your Stanley Cup favorite once the field has been reduced to eight teams. Again, they have won the Stanley Cup seven times as the undisputed favorite going into the playoffs, and the track record of the second-best team in the NHL shows that the favorites hold a heavy advantage as long as they get to the second-round. Of the 26 teams that finished second-overall in the NHL, only three have won the Stanley Cup. In fact, no other team ranked in the top-ten of the NHL's overall regular season standings is better than that, so it proves that if a President's Trophy team can get out of the first round, their chances of winning the Stanley Cup go up significantly.

The Chicago Blackhawks won the President's Trophy in 1991, but were eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs by an upstart Minnesota North Stars squad. Chicago finished 38 points ahead of their division-rivals, but were sent home after a 4-2 series loss. Jeremy Roenick had led the Blackhawks to their best finish in years only to be golfing a mere two weeks later.

"It was a great feeling at the end of the season because we knew we had such a great team and we rolled through the regular season," Roenick told Dan Rosen of in 2009. "We thought that we had it in the bag and, because of that feeling, we took a team that was playing well in Minnesota for granted. We just got spanked.

"I remember going off the ice at the old Met Center and getting hit with a hot dog bun and having a beer thrown at me. It was a big kick in the face after such a great season. I'll never forget that feeling."

Maybe it takes the experience of losing as the President's Trophy winner to know that there are still sixteen wins needed for immortality. Of the six President's Trophy-winning teams that won the Stanley Cup, five of those teams won the Stanley Cup after winning their second President's Trophy. Only the Detroit Red Wings have an asterisk beside their name as they won it on their third President's Trophy-winning season. And since 1986-87, Detroit is only team to have won the Stanley Cup twice as the President's Trophy-winning team, doing so again on their sixth try as the top regular-season team in 2007-08. In fact, the last two President's Trophy-winning teams to win the Stanley Cup are none other than the 2001-02 Red Wings and the 2007-08 Red Wings.

Only one - last year's Vancouver Canucks - have made it to the Stanley Cup Final, and four of the last ten President's Trophy-winning teams have gone home after the first-round of the playoffs. The "upset" of the best regular-season team is becoming more common in today's game than it ever has been in the past, and three President's Trophy winners in the last four years have been ousted in the first round. Ouch.

In looking at Vancouver's early exit this season, it seems they may be following Detroit's path of winning President's Trophies and Stanley Cups. In 1995, Detroit was the best team in the regular season to claim their first President's Trophy, only to lose in the Stanley Cup Final to the New Jersey Devils. In 1996, the Red Wings rose to the top in the NHL once more during the regular season, but bowed out in the Conference Final to Colorado in the playoffs. Six years later, the Red Wings captured both trophies after downing the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup Final.

Vancouver captured the President's Trophy last season as the NHL's top team before eventually losing in the Stanley Cup Final to the Boston Bruins. This season, the Canucks returned to the top of the mountain before being ousted by the Los Angeles Kings in the first-round of the playoffs. If the Canucks are following Detroit's map, are Vancouver fans willing to wait another six years for their team to capture both trophies? In fact, I'm positive that the fans would take a Stanley Cup over another President's Trophy any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

However, Los Angeles moves on to play St. Louis. Vancouver goes home to watch on TV. Such is life for the NHL's President Trophy-winning team.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

1 comment:

Dr. Pete said...

I have to say that Vancouver winning the Presidents Trophy this year was a surprise. They really didn't dominate the season like last year, and clearly, there was no one player that took the bull by the horns like in the last two seasons. So, I guess I shouldn't be surprised they lost the way they did.