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Vulgar Statistics: The Stanley Cup Hangover

09/12/11
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Often here at VS, I take widely held perceptions and set out to discover if they’re true or not.  One of those that popped into my head was the so-called “Stanley Cup Hangover,” and whether or not it was a real thing.  Obviously (and we’re going to get real technical here), teams that win the Stanley Cup win the Stanley Cup 100% of the years they win the Stanley Cup, and less than 100% the year after, so they are at least worse by some definition the following season.  Knowing that, and that luck and injuries play huge factors in winning a championship, I ignored the postseason and concentrated on the regular season.

One of the things I really wanted to do was track down the origin of the phrase “Stanley Cup Hangover” to see what the actual definition was, suspecting it might be a snazzy way of saying “hey, not a lot of teams win the cup after they win the cup.”  Unfortunately those efforts proved unsuccessful.  The earliest mention of the phrase I can find is in regards to the Ottawa Senators post-cup appearance campaign in 2008.  Reading a few blogs and sports websites, from what I can tell the overwhelming use has been to describe a team’s suckage in the regular season following a Cup win, which fits in perfectly here.

Differing definitions is not the only issue.  For a large chunk of the “modern” Stanley Cup era (in which the NHL was the only league competing for the cup), there were only six NHL teams (1927 to 1967, coincidentally the last year the Leafs won the cup).  While this doesn’t take away the chance for a Stanley Cup Hangover, it does make carrying a good roster (and good season) over much easier.  So there was some question over where I wanted to concentrate my look at regular season records.  The stats are pretty simple and easy to sort, so I figured I’d focus on a few different areas.

If you go all the way back to 1927, Stanley Cup Winners look like this:

  • Cup Season – 3,260-1596-803-71 for 7,394 points and a .645 points pct.
  • Post-Cup Season – 3156-1754-755-64 for 7,131 points and a .622 points pct.

What that works out to is an average of 3 less points for a Cup team in its hangover season.

If you go back to 1970, when the league expanded to 14 teams:

  • Cup Season – 1,906-838-377-71 for 4,260 points and a .667 points pct.
  • Post-Cup Season – 1,850-927-327-64 for 4,091 points and a .646 points pct.

What that works out to is an average of 4 less points for a Cup team in its hangover season.

If you go back to 1980, when the league had 21 teams:

  • Cup Season – 1,388-695-250-71 for 3,097 points and a .644 points pct.
  • Post-Cup Season – 1,331-765-236-64 for 2,962 points and a .618 points pct.

What that works out to is an average of 4 less points for a Cup team in its hangover season.

If you go back to 1990, when the league had 21 teams:

  • Cup Season – 911-470-152-71 for 2,045 points and a .637 points pct.
  • Post-Cup Season – 867-531-134-64 for 1,932 points and a .605 points pct.

What that works out to is an average of 5 less points for a Cup team in its hangover season.

And finally, if you go back to 2001, when the league expanded to its current 30 teams:

  • Cup Season – 446-188-38-66 for 996 points and a .675 points pct.
  • Post-Cup Season – 408-235-30-55 for 901 points and a .619 points pct.

What that works out to is an average of 10 less points for a Cup team in its hangover season.

That last one has to be taken with a bit of a grain of salt because you’ve got the abysmal 2006 Hurricanes dropping 24 points to 88 in 2007, along with Colorado going from 118 to 99 from 2001 to 2002, and the firesale Blackhawks going from 112 to 97 after their 2010 Cup victory.  Still, the only team to improve the season after a Cup victory in the last ten years is Pittsburgh, who went from 99 points in 2009 to 101 points in 2010.  And of the 84 cup winners since 1927 (excluding Boston since I can’t tell the future), 54 of them have had a worse season following their Cup run.

Final Thoughts:

This is about what I expected to find in researching this article.  It makes perfect sense that a Cup winning team would suffer a letdown the following season with diminished desire and an increased intensity from opponents (especially if they have to do what the 2010 Blackhawks did in ditching key personnel).  Plus when teams do win a Cup, they often have guys putting up numbers that they’ll never approach again which also leads to a diminished follow-up season.  The growth of the hangover effect surprised me a little, but it too makes sense when you consider how similar every team is these days and how much they have access to in preparation.  Gone are the days where teams could thrive for several seasons on some training or playing technique they discovered before anyone else.  Replacing them are the days of film study where even if a team does come up with something innovative, they can only get away with it for about twenty seconds before other teams get enough footage to learn how to stop it.  Ultimately the hangover effect is good for the league.  More teams having a chance to win the Cup year in and year out means more involved fanbases and more money being spent on merchandise and tickets (plus less watching the same obnoxious team in the Finals every year).  Win, win, win.

To peruse my (somewhat messy) spreadsheet of Cup and hangover teams, click here.

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