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The League-Cup Double, and why it should matter

What's wrong with this picture? NHL VP Bill Daly presents the Presidents' Trophy to Washington captain Alex Ovechkin in an antiseptic pre-game ceremony.
What's wrong with this picture? NHL VP Bill Daly presents the Presidents' Trophy to Washington captain Alex Ovechkin in an antiseptic pre-game ceremony.

What's right with this picture? One week ago: Chelsea FC celebrates in style with the Premier League Trophy they Earned by virtue of being the Premiership's top squad over the 38-game regular season. Picapp

Both scenes shown here see the best team over a long season being recognized for its performance. Other than that they don't seem to have much in common. In the NHL the captain of the best team receives the President's Trophy from the Vice President (go figure) in what amounts to a glorified photo op, but nobody seems to give much of a shit about it. In football (soccer to heathens in the readership :) the trophy gets awarded directly after the clinching game and celebrated in grand style by players and fans alike. This scene at Stamford Bridge was/will be repeated in numerous countries across Europe and around the world, whereas the empty ceremony in the Verizon Centre is pretty much unique to the NHL and the marketing genii who run it.

There are a lot of lessons which hockey could draw from the Beautiful Game. One of these is the heavy emphasis put on their regular season. The teams in the Football Association do play off for the FA Cup which is somewhat equivalent to the Stanley Cup, and it's a big deal ... Saturday's FA Cup Final is the last "fixture" of the season, and will be played in front of a packed house at Wembley Stadium.

But the Cup is not the Only big deal; in fact, it's not even the biggest deal. Winning the league over a gruelling ~9-month schedule is the ultimate prize, at least within one's own country. "The table doesn't lie" is how the Brit announcer put it with the usual economy of words as Chelsea was nailing down the title with a comprehensive 8-0 thrashing of Wigan last Sunday. The table doesn't lie. The standings reveal who has been the best over the long season. Isn't that worth at least a small celebration, Alex? You guys done good. Instead, you won't even look at the darn thing because it's "not the one we want", and in the process heap the pressure of expectations that much higher on the postseason.

The NHL wasn't always like this. In the Original Six the regular season champion received the Prince of Wales Trophy, and teams really tried to win it. There were two, sequential prizes at stake, one for the season, one for the postseason. For one thing there was money on the line, meaningful money given the salaries of the day. But more than that, there was honour in winning the league as well as the playoffs.

After 1967 the Prince of Wales was still awarded for regular season excellence but only to the winner of the Eastern Conference, while the Clarence Campbell Bowl was awarded to the equivalent in the west. There was no trophy for first overall. Then in 1982 the two existing trophies were suddenly awarded for winning the conference finals, making three postseason trophies and none at all for the regular season. In 1985, perhaps in response to the suggestion of at least one activist fan ;), John Ziegler introduced the President's Trophy to again recognize the first overall team as the Prince of Wales had decades earlier. For whatever reason it has not regained anywhere near the same mystique. The players, the teams, the league itself downplay the darn thing as if the regular season doesn't really matter that much. (These guys pride themselves on their marketing acumen, but on some issues it's hard to imagine them stuffing their heads any further up their holes.)

In soccer the ultimate goal within the national leagues is to win "The Double", copping both the League and the Cup, as Chelsea will try to do for the first time in their long history tomorrow. Surely in hockey the objective should be the exact same?

In fact there is a long history of teams doing just that. Regardless of the name, or even the presence, of the trophy, regardless of the emphasis placed on winning it, the cream will rise to the top of the standings many more years than not. One has to accept that sometimes the standings do lie, especially in Gary Bettman's NHL with its "free lunch" points system and its unbalanced schedule (although nobody seems to mind that the playoffs are entirely unbalanced, with no two teams ever facing a common opponent!) No matter the small inequalities, it takes a very good team to win ~⅔ of its games over the long season and finish atop the standing. It takes a different sort of very good team to win four consecutive playoff series over two months. It takes a great team to do both.

Whatever flaws in the recognition system, the results of every season are a matter of record. So for the purpose of discussion let's recognize the first overall team as champions in their own right and see what we can find out.

In the 84 years and 83 seasons - thanks again, Gary! - that have been played since the NHL assumed control of the Stanley Cup, the same team has won both the League (first overall - tiebreaker rules applied as necessary) and the Cup on 37 occasions. Almost half of those seasons ended with absolutely no argument as to who was the best team in the league, cuz they had both titles. To me that is the sign of a dominant team. Moreover, multiple championships of both types over a series of years are a sure sign of a dynasty team; the process of including President's Trophies and equivalent effectively doubles the database for assessing such matters. Details after the jump.

One might suppose it was more common for a team to win both back in the days of the Original Six. That's true, but barely. In the 41 seasons before expansion, 19 teams completed the double; in the 41 full seasons since, 18 more teams have done the same. The distribution by decade shows the feat is gradually becoming more rare over the past 20 years as the league has swollen to 30 members:

(Late 1920s - 1 - Ottawa)
1930s - 3 - Detroit 2, Boston
1940s - 5 - Boston, Detroit, Montreal 2, Toronto
1950s - 7 - Detroit 4, Montreal 3
1960s - 5 - Montreal 4, Toronto
1970s - 6 - Boston, Montreal 4, Philadelphia
1980s - 5 - NY Islanders 2, Edmonton 2, Calgary
1990s - 2 - NY Rangers, Dallas
2000s - 3 - Colorado, Detroit 2

Every major dynasty in the NHL is represented, most of them with multiple entries. The Montreal Canadiens achieved the double an astonishing 13 times, all in a 36-year span from 1943-79, with a distinct dynasty in each decade. Detroit Red Wings have 9 doubles over an interval twice as long - 72 years - featuring 3 different, widely-spaced powerhouses. The Bruins have done it three times, the Leafs, Islanders and Oilers twice each, 6 other teams once.

Two teams have achieved the double in 3 consecutive seasons, or more accurately only one franchise has done it, two separate times. The Habs of 1957-60 and 1975-78 both dominated the regular season and playoffs for three years running. The Red Wings of the early 50s won two in a row, three in 4 years, four in 6. Only two other teams - the 1935-37 Red Wings and the 1980-82 Islanders - have ever posted double doubles.

Of course doubles are just one proxy for dominance. The two doubles by the recent Wings represent just a fraction of their overall winnings: over the great career of Nick Lidstrom the Wings have won 10 major championships, including 6 President's Trophies and 4 Stanley Cups. The combination of the two numbers reveal the Wings' true dominance over the past decade and a half; no other team has won more than 4 titles in the same span (Colorado, with two of each).

Because it effectively doubles the data set I like to include regular season championships when considering the great teams. To me they are more revealing than Lowetide's eminently-interesting "pennants", because my method includes both regular season and playoffs, with both open to the entire league. A super team can win both, whereas no matter how dominant, it can win just one conference title in a year. There are therefore always two different pennant winners, each winning their half of the league, and only in the playoffs.

A dynasty team will win one title or the other in years they are not sweeping both. By coincidence most of the super teams seemed to have about a 7-year run atop the NHL, so let's use that interval as our standard:

Team Period 1st OV Cups Titles
Detroit 1948-55 7 4 11
Montreal 1955-62 6 5 11
Montreal 1972-79 4 5 9
Montreal 1964-71 3 5 8
Edmonton 1983-90 3 5 8
NY Islanders 1978-83* 3 4 7
Toronto 1944-51 1 5 6
Detroit 2001-08** 4 2 6

This list includes every team that's won 5 Cups in 7 years, as well as those remarkable Red Wing squads that won 7 straight Prince of Wales Trophies. Montreal fans might cry foul that their squad of the late 50s actually won 5 Cups in a row, not "just" 5 in 7, but fear not, those Habs carried on winning first place for two more years and wind up in a dead heat with the Detroit powerhouse that immediately preceded them with 11 titles over a 7-year span. * The Islanders did all their winning in just 5 years but won enough to get included on this list. ** The modern Red Wings, meanwhile, lost one season to lockout in the midst of their run.

Other impressive runs over shorter spans include these:

1950s Canadiens - 9 in 5 years
1950s Red Wings - 7 in 4 years
1970s Canadiens - 7 in 4 years
1980s Islanders - 7 in 5 years
1980s Oilers - 7 in 5 years
1930s/40s Bruins - 6 in 4 years
1940s Canadiens - 6 in 4 years
1920/30s Canadiens - 5 in 5 years
1940s Leafs - 4 in 3 years
1960s Leafs - 4 in 3 years
1990s Red Wings - 4 in 4 years
1990s Penguins - 3 in 3 years

In each case the team won at least one title in each year of the string. The Habs of 1927-32 are a good example of a team that was likely better than people realize: they won back to back Cups in '30 and '31, but won first place for the two years preceding that and again the year following for a very nice little streak of 5 years with a title. Meanwhile, both the Bruins and Habs of the 1940s won a couple of Cups apiece, but in each case those titles were mounted on a rock-solid foundation of 4 consecutive Prince of Wales Trophies leaving little doubt they were by far the best teams of those short eras.

A couple of first place finishes add a little credence to even temporarily strong teams like the Flames of the late 80s or the Stars of the late 90s. Both won the President's Trophy two years running, then added the Stanley Cup the second year. Which in my view makes them more impressive teams than one-off Stanley Cup champs like the '06 Hurricanes *spits* or the '07 Ducks *spits again*. I was no big fan of the Flames or Stars either, but both teams earned my respect by being dominant for a couple of years as opposed to a couple of months.

There'll be no double champion in 2009-10, as the President's Trophy winners from Washington were shocked in the first round of the playoffs. Only the awesome Red Wings of 2007-08 have accomplished the feat in the last 8 years, er, 7 seasons. It's an open book as to whether this is a temporary variation from the norm or whether the divergence is real because each of the two championships is becoming more of a crapshoot every year. But dammit, Alex, you and your team (and your league) should have celebrated the one title you did win, without it diminishing in any way your desire for the other. Wouldn't the best possible outcome be Two parties?