The Presidents’ Trophy Curse

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Every year around this time, some team wins the Presidents’ Trophy, awarded to the best regular season team in the National Hockey League.  Not coincidentally, every year around this time a small subset of hockey fans start blathering on talking about the fabled “Presidents’ Trophy Curse,’ wherein the best team in the NHL regular season is somehow cursed with a difficult playoff path and a lower probability of winning the Stanley Cup.

How have Presidents’ Trophy winners fared in the playoffs?

I’ve really tried to hold off on writing this piece.  There’s a simple reason for that: any time I hear the word curse, it’s all I can do not to berate the person who brings it up.  Despite the labyrinth of superstition around the game, espoused at least partially by players, broadcasters and fans, the simple fact of the matter is that none of these things, well, matter.

Players don’t get injured because they have appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated or The Hockey News.  Goalies don’t allow a goal in the final minutes because the play-by-play man mentioned the word ‘shutout.’  The grand total impact of our neighbour refusing to change his socks for three weeks is a modest drop in personal hygiene, with no effect whatsoever on a team’s playoff run.  The prevalence of playoff beards treats us to the masculine beauty of Mike Commodore’s impressive collection of facial hair and the slightly odd look of a thinly-moustachioed Sidney Crosby, but it doesn’t help anybody win the Stanley Cup.

Hence my reluctance to write this piece.  I should just be able to say ‘curses are not real’ and end the discussion.

Yet, the discussion persists, and nobody seems willing to look deeply at the numbers.  Mike Chen looked at them in what is probably the most objective piece to date, but that write-up suffers from a lack of comparisons and a mild rather than firm conclusion.

So, let us introduce comparisons.  How much playoff success has the Presidents’ Trophy Winner had, relative to other spots in the NHL standings?  We’ll start in 1993-94, the first season in which teams played their way through their conference rather than through their division.

Seed 1st Rd. Loss 2nd Rd. Loss 3rd Rd. Loss Finals Loss Win
1 4 1 5 1 5
2 6 5 3 - 2
3 5 4 3 2 2
4 5 2 3 2 4
5 4 7 4 - 1
6 8 5 2 1 -
7 10 5 - 1 -
8 4 6 4 1 1
9 9 2 2 2 1
10 12 2 1 1 -
11 11 3 2 - -
12 10 3 2 1 -
13 8 8 - - -
14 10 4 - 2 -
15 11 4 - 1 -
16 12 3 1 - -

The Presidents’ Trophy winner is obviously the most successful team, being:

  • eliminated in the first round the fewest number of times
  • eliminated in the second round the fewest number of times
  • the Stanley Cup champion more frequently than any other seed
  • in the Finals three times as often as the second seed

In fact, looking at the data, if we were to concoct a curse the one we ought to look at is the Regular Season Runner-Up Curse – the second seed has been eliminated in the first round six times, more than any of the other top-five slots, and has only played in the Stanley Cup Finals twice in the last 16 seasons.

Given that the Presidents’ Trophy slot is obviously the most favourable position, why do we create factually vacuous phantoms like the ‘Presidents’ Trophy Curse?’  Mostly, it’s because of the way memory works: we expect the best regular season team to advance, and when they fall in the first or second round we remember it as a major upset in a way that don’t when it was the second or third seed – because after all, they weren’t the best team during the season.  Then, when we look back at Presidents’ Trophy winners, we focus in on the losses – because winning is expected, only the losses stand out.

Looking at the whole picture in the way we just have, we see that there’s nothing to it.  The Presidents’ Trophy generally predicts success rather than the opposite.