It’s not even like the New York Rangers have lost a bunch of games in a row—in fact, they’ve won six out of the last ten, which puts them on pace for a modest 98 points, but until Sunday’s disappointing result to the Boston Bruins on home ice, the Blueshirts had won four in a row and six of seven, almost looking like they could ease to the Presidents’ Trophy.
I don’t recall the last time that there was an interesting Presidents’ Trophy race. Last season, the Vancouver Canucks won the title by ten points, a year before, the Washington Capitals by eight. In 2009, the Boston Bruins trailed the San Jose Sharks by five points going into the final week and, thanks to a single point in their final three games, the Sharks held on to the regular season title by just a point.
They went on to crash and burn in the playoffs, as did the 2010 Caps, and while the Presidents’ Trophy race may have minimal implications on the NHL Playoffs, it’s kind of interesting because, for the first time in what seems like years, there’s actually a bit of a race going down the stretch into the final week.
I’m not sure what it really means for the teams in the race. For every scenario like 2001 where the best home team in the league (in this case the Colorado Avalanche, who were 28-6-5-2 on home ice) won home-ice advantage for Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Finals and turned that into a Stanley Cup Championship, there exists scenarios like, well, last season, when the Canucks took their best home-ice record in the league to Game Seven and put up as much of a dud as you’ll ever see.
You can quizzically look at the standings and sort of think the Presidents’ Trophy is meaningless when it comes to the playoffs since I believe 2001 is the only year that the number one seeds from both conferences met in the finals, but there’s something special to behold in it. The winner of the Presidents’ Trophy is probably the best hockey team in the league, and European football leagues around the world give proper credit to the team that won the most games in any given season.
I think what bugs North Americans about the league champion being awarded the “Champions” moniker for any formal season of competition is for how many times the final stage of the season is spent sipping champagne while cycling down les Champs d’Élysées. For whatever reason, we spend more time on this side of the world caring more about small sample tournaments to determine a winner. The Stanley Cup Playoffs is one of these, but also tonight, the champion of the NCAA basketball season will be crowned, with the champion not just having to survive a regular season, but also six games of single-elimination basketball.
As JLikens wrote after last season’s Stanley Cup Finals, “To those who regard the NHL playoffs as a competition designed to determine the league’s best team, the result can mean only one thing – that the Bruins were the best team all along, and the Canucks mere pretenders.”
A more reasonable explanation, however, is that shit happens over the course of a seven game series and, because of that, the better team doesn’t always win. The Canucks were better than Boston during the regular season, and were likely better in the first three rounds of the playoffs as well. They were better than Boston last year and there’s a good chance that they’ll do better next year. They were probably the better team.
Likens then goes on to calculate that the best NHL team will win the Presidents’ Trophy about 32% of the time, and the best team will win the Stanley Cup about 22% of the time. Scroll through, and you’ll see that more simulations finished with the best team getting beaten in the first round of the playoffs more than they had them winning the Stanley Cup.
Are the playoffs, then, the best way to discover the best team? No, but it’s more fun. There’s a certain amount of expectation we get at the start of each seven-game series (Team X has a chance, but not Team Y) and we get to act all surprised when a goalie pops miracle pills and eliminates a Presidents’ Trophy winner right off the bat.
I’m more comfortable talking about the Washington Capitals this season as needing a makeover than I did after the last two seasons, because the holes in the roster are more evident, now that we’ve seen their losses spread over a much, much larger scale of games. Similarly, I won’t need a playoff series or two won by the St. Louis Blues for them to prove to me they’re for real; I know they are.
But we finally have a bit of a race going, here. Vancouver has won a few straight and are tied with New York, and get a much easier schedule down the stretch, playing Anaheim, Calgary and Edmonton. St. Louis, a point behind the Canucks, are lucky enough to play Detroit, Phoenix and Dallas. The Rangers get Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington.
The Rangers, with a higher number of regulation or overtime wins, control their own fate, needing only to win out to seal the deal. What’s more striking to me is that neither of these teams will see one another, so Vancouver and St. Louis would have to do some scoreboard watching… if this were Europe. This isn’t a competition that matters to the players or teams as much. No captain in the right mind would hoist it, and there are rightfully no parades to celebrate it. It’s like the Lady Byng of team awards, with more opportunity for ridicule than for praise, after all, three of six Presidents’ Trophy winners since the lockout were knocked out in Round One, and another came out so flat in Game Seven at home it’s not funny except for a few cackling ‘I-Told-You-So’ers.
Obviously, home ice can’t hurt, but first overall in the NHL is very unlikely to mean anything in the end. Clinching the conference is probably more on the mind of these three teams, but I’ll be paying close attention to this race in the final week, because I really do think the league champion deserves to be more than a footnote when discussing the season as a whole in the years to come.
As for predictions, I think St. Louis will sweep out their final three games, because they’re a better team. Also, they’re the team that could use the extra home ice; they’re on a 135-point pace at home but just 86-point pace on the road. They’re a below .500 team away from the Scottrade Center, at 18-16-6 (or 18-24 to a normal person).