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.

Comments (10)

  1. THANK YOU! Every time I head some knob prattling on about “HA! Presidents Trophy winners have only ever won __ times!”, I couldn’t help but wonder how that actually compared to the other seeds…

  2. take detroit and the habs out of the equation. what are u left ??? take out the 70s habs and the more recent wing dynasty and you are left with squat.

  3. @ Joe shmoo:

    I’m really not sure what you’re getting at here – this count only goes back to the introduction of the current playoff format (16 years) so the ’70s Canadiens have absolutely nothing to do with it.

    Besides, you can say the same thing about any seed – take away this team or that team and what’s left? It strikes me as a rather imperfect defence of a non-existent ‘curse.’

  4. It should be noted that it’s a much worse ratio in recent years – rather than the 31% of the overall total, it’s been one of the past eight years where the regular-season champion has won the Cup (Detroit over the Pens).

    And the President’s trophy winner has lost in the first round three times since the lockout (which is probably the fairer cutoff point, given the increase in overall parity since then – it’s no surprise that the best stretch for the PT winner was 98-01). So recently, there’s certainly an identifiable trend towards the PT winner getting upset in shocking fashion rather than winning the Cup.

  5. @ Stephen:

    The lockout is far too short a time span – five samples isn’t nearly long enough to make that kind of case. Based on the length of time, I’m more inclined to chalk the upsets up to “random noise” than an “identifiable trend.”

    Besides which, what’s the reason you’re suggesting for the trend? Why would the Presidents’ Trophy winner be worse than that first overall spot suggests? I’ve never seen a reason suggeste43d, beyond “curse.”

  6. Jon, the issue is that the playing field, in theory, has been substantially levelled since the lockout. An 8th-place team pre-lockout would be likely to have a significant resource gap between them and one of the first place teams (Colorado, Detroit, Dallas, etc.). So we’re seeing more upsets because there isn’t as big a talent gap between 8th and 1st these days.

    I agree that five years isn’t a great sample size, but the distinct differences in team composition pre- and post-lockout mean it’s probably better to analyse the impact of finishing first in the current era without regard to what came before. And in the current era, the President’s Trophy winner is three times as likely to lose in the first round as they are to win a Cup.

    (Also, there wasn’t a single first-round upset before the 2000 playoffs.)

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  8. @ Joe shmoo:

    Actually, you’re left with the 86-87 Oilers, the 88-89 Flames, the 93-94 Rangers, the 98-99 Stars, and the 01-02 Avalanche. In other words, you’re left with the vast majority of Presidents’ Trophy and Stanley Cup winners.

    @ Stephen:

    You make a good argument, however it’s predicated largely on the fact that there has been an “increase in overall parity” since the lockout. While this works in theory, the numbers simply do not back your claim. In the five years before the lockout, the average gap in points between the Presidents’ Trophy winner and their first round opponent was 25 points. In the five years since the lockout, the point gap has actually increased to an average of 26.6 points.

    This does not seem to indicate and increases in parity whatsoever. In fact, it would point towards a decrease in parity. Yes, the increase in the points gap is equal to less than one win per season, but it still disproves the notion that the 8th place team is getting noticeably closer in talent to the 1st place squad.

  9. Good statistical reasoning by the author vs. superstition.

  10. Hey, one good question there is a curse with first year winners of the President’s Trophy. Since 1986 first time winners of the President’s Trophy has not won the Stanley Cup in the same season. I know how the experts think there is not curse because a Canadian team wins the President’s Trophy, but there is, first winners were the Edmonton Oilers, that was the one time they lost with the streak of 3 out of 4 years they won the Stanley Cup. Hmm? Dont believe me, Calgary Flames were the next Canadian team to win it for the first time. Calgary lost to Edmonton, and vise versa when Edmonton won for the first time. Next one is the Ottawa Senators, they won it in 2003 and lost to New Jersey in the East finals. The closest team to breaking this curse was the Boston Bruins in 1990 when they went to the finals just to win only one game. Be as biased as you want experts just because another Canadian team won it for the first time, but this is a true curse because no one has broken it being first time winners of this trophy. And I believe this will not change.

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