Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Lameduck President's Trophy

Woo hoo, the Vancouver Canucks finish first overall!

Thank you, Northwest Division for making this feat possible and after the clinching the Canucks racked up a scary 16 wins and 4 losses vs. the four non-playoff teams in "our" division.

The Detroit Red Wings, on the other hand, could only manage a 10 win 11 loss record up to that point vs. its division. The San Jose Sharks were a tad better at 11 wins and 8 losses vs. their own division through April Fools' Day.

Insert your own counter argument here in either the Wings' or Sharks' odds of finishing first overall, if they were able to feast on arguably the four weakest teams in the Western Conference a la the Canucks did.

Finishing first overall is great, if you want to...lose in the first round. Maybe it's because the pressure is cranked up and especially for newcomers like the Canucks it's hard to handle being top dog. We'll find out.

The record of President's Trophy winners is very sketchy since 2000. Have a look at the highest seeds' glorious records:
'00 St. Louis Blues lost in 1st rd. to the San Jose Sharks
'01 Colorado Avalanche won the Cup
'02 Detroit Red Wings won the Cup
'03 Ottawa Senators went to the semi-finals
'04 Detroit Red Wings lost in the quarter-finals to the Calgary Flames
'06 Detroit Red Wings lost in the first rd. to the Edmonton Oilers
'07 Buffalo Sabres went to the semi-finals
'08 Detroit Red Wings won the Cup
'09 San Jose Sharks lost in 1st rd. to the Anaheim Ducks
'10 Washington Capitals lost in 1st rd. to the Montreal Canadiens

Now the cup is half full people will argue that the Wings (twice) and the Avs all won Cups as President's Trophy holders. That is a good argument, if you have a track record of playoff success. The Avs in the years from its '96 Cup went to three semi-finals and got CuJo-ed by the Oilers in the first rd. over those prior four seasons.
The Wings since their '97 & '98 Cup years subsequently got to the quarter-finals twice and lost in rd. 1 to the Los Angeles Kings (what?) in '01. So their record was indifferent yet they also had plenty of Cup pedigree in that '01/02 Cup year with ten players who hung around since '98. Adding Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Chris Chelios, Pavel Datsyuk, Steve Duchesne, Fredrik Olausson and especially Dominik Hasek in the intervening seasons did obviously help in that '02 Cup run.

The Wings after '02 through to their next Cup lost twice in the first rd., went to a quarter-final and got to the semi-finals in '07. Again a bit of a mixed bag of playoff success but we are talking the Red Wings after all. They somehow managed to retool and not let their playoff failings derail their Cup plans. Hence in '08 they won it all and with eight guys still on the roster from the '02 Cup team as well as a returning Chris Osgood.

Where does that leave the Canucks then?
Will they fold like San Jose and Washington did the past two seasons or can they parlay a mediocre playoff resume into a long run to at least the semi-finals a la the Sabres or the Sens did?

The Sens may be the model as prior to its first ever deep playoff run in '03 to the semi-finals, they lost four times in rd. 1 and twice in the quarter-finals. The Canucks have almost as middling a record--a first rd. loss in '05, three times out in the quarter-finals . . . and even twice missing the playoffs in the past six seasons.

Probably the key for the Canucks is similar to the Sens' key--avoid at all cost your nemesis.
In '03 the Sens dodged a huge bullet as the Toronto Maple Leafs (the team that knocked the Sens out of the playoffs in three straight seasons) lost a Game 7 to the Philadelphia Flyers. That cleared the track for the Sens' deep Cup run that fell short in a Game 7 vs. the New Jersey Devils.

Ominously, the Canucks' current doppelganger, the Chicago Blackhawks, lie waiting for Vancouver in the 8th spot. If ever Marc Crawford owed the Canucks a favor, he needs his Stars to come through and snag that last spot and knock Chicago out. The Canucks went 4W-0L vs. the Stars this season. Outscoring the Stars 20-5, by the way, in those four games.

Now we could argue the Hawks are weaker this season with all the changes but they are still the defending Cup champions. They seem to have easily replaced Antti Niemi with Corey Crawford in net, and they have been pretty red hot since the All-Star break. This is not a normal 8th seed.

Having said that some Cup champs (notably the '04 New Jersey Devils, '06 Tampa Bay Lightning. '07 Carolina Hurricanes and '08 Anaheim Ducks) who slump in the season following have flamed out losing in the first rd. or completely missing the playoffs as the Canes did in '07.

So there you have it, either the glass is half full or half empty but really it all comes down to matchups no matter what the Canucks record is. After all the '94 team was 14th overall in the regular season.

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