Friday, July 2, 2021

What’s been NHL playoff history’s most common path to a Stanley Cup?

Fair warning, there’s no especially high concept for today’s post. Just a neat question, sent in by reader Rob B., that could take us to some interesting places.

Rob wanted to know: What’s the most common path through the NHL playoffs for an eventual Stanley Cup champion?

In other words, which teams does the soon-to-be-champion encounter (and beat) most often, and in which rounds? Or to put it one more way, which teams are the ones who’ve historically served as stepping stones for the most eventual champs?

I’m going to pause here while you think about where your team would rank. Then I’m going to make a prediction: You think they’re going to show up a lot. Maybe even close to the top of the list. I feel like this is one of those universal things, like “my team always gets shut out by rookie goalies” or “my team always gets scored on by former players”, where every fan base thinks they’re unique. In this case, you’re thinking your team always seems to end up losing to the eventual Cup winner.

Well, you’re wrong, because I’m pretty sure the Leafs are going to be the team that shows up the most. That just seems like it would be very on-brand for them. I haven’t looked it up yet, so let’s dive in and see who’s right.

We’ll do this by round, going back to the 1979-80 season that marked the first year with a 16-team postseason and four rounds for everyone. (There were some seasons in the 70s with a preliminary round, meaning some teams had to play four rounds to get to the final and some only three, but for sake of simplicity we won’t worry about those. We’re also ignoring last year’s play-in round.)

So which team has been first-round fodder for the most champions? Let’s find out…

Round one

It doesn’t take us very long to see a team stake its claim to our cannon fodder crown. The Los Angeles Kings are the very first team to crack our list, as they kick off that 1980 postseason by losing their opening round series to an Islanders team they’d just helped out at the trade deadline. The Kings would pull off the repeat in 1985 and again 1987, losing in the first round to the Oilers both times. So just eight years into our history lesson, and the Kings have already opened the playoffs by losing to the eventual champ three times. Can anyone catch them?

Yes, as it turns out, because that 1987 series is the last time the Kings show up on our round one list. That opens the door to a Smythe Division rival, as the Winnipeg Jets were the first-round victim in each of the decade’s three other Oiler championships, in 1984, 1986 and 1990.

We get two more entries in the three-timers club thanks to more recent franchises in the cap era. The Nashville Predators lost in the opening round to the eventual champs in 2008 (Detroit), 2010 (Chicago) and 2015 (the Hawks again). And the Columbus Blue Jackets have come roaring into the fray in recent years, losing in the first round to the Penguins in 2017, the Capitals in 2018 and the Lightning last year.

That gives us four teams, tied at three losses each, and here’s where we’ll hit a little bit of potential controversy with one of them. The Jets became the Coyotes in 1996, and two years later they lost to the Red Wings to open Detroit’s second of back-to-back title runs, Arizona’s one and only appearance on the list since the move. That threatens to kick off another round of the “Are the Jets still the Jets?” existential debate, but as it turns out, the reborn version of the team also shows up once, thanks to Winnipeg’s 2019 loss to the Blues. So either way you slice it, some version of the Jets is up to four first-round exits to eventual Cup winners. It’s just a little messy.

Luckily for us, that turns out not to matter, because there’s one team that can top that. The Vancouver Canucks show up on the first-round list with admirable consistency, having lost to the Flames in 1989, the Avalanche in 1996 and 2001, the Red Wings in 2002, and then the Kings in 2012, for a total of five seasons where they’ve lost to the eventual Cup champ in round one.

That’s impressive commitment to the bit, and it gives us the first step of our ultimate answer: The most common path to the Stanley Cup starts with a win over the Vancouver Canucks in round two.

Got the concept? Cool, let’s see who’s waiting for our archetypal Cup champs in the next round.

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