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The Bruins and the Stanley Cup Hangover

Posted by Andrew Mooney  November 5, 2011 01:03 PM

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The Bruins could be excused for nursing a hangover following their Stanley Cup victory in June – a $150,000 bar tab would leave anyone feeling a little under the weather. But it’s getting high time to climb out of bed and take a cold shower. It’s November, boys.

Or maybe there’s something more sinister at work: are the Bruins suffering the aftereffects of the dreaded “Stanley Cup Hangover”? As the theory goes, teams that compete into the summer have difficulty returning from the physical strain and emotional exertion of fighting for a championship. This carries over into the following season, a burden ultimately keeping them out of contention for a repeat championship.

There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting the reality of the Stanley Cup Hangover phenomenon. After hoisting the Cup in 2010, the Chicago Blackhawks floundered through much of 2011, squeaking into the playoffs as an 8th seed before their elimination in seven games by the Canucks. The NHL hasn’t had a repeat champion since the 1998 Red Wings. The two finalists from last year, the Bruins and the Canucks, haven’t met expectations during the current young season.

Do the numbers tell a similar story? Below are charts detailing the results for both Stanley Cup winners and losers since 1995, when the NHL settled on an 82-game schedule.

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Over this period, Cup-winning teams suffered a dropoff of, on average, 6.67 points during the regular season, a difference amounting to between two and three seeds in the playoffs. Cup-losing teams experience a similar downturn, falling short of their results the previous year by about 7.5 points. This alone could account for a large part of the difficulty of returning to the finals: a lower seed in the postseason creates matchups against stronger teams and a lower likelihood of advancing in each round.

One interesting point to note is the high variance of results for teams that lost in the finals; their performance the following year tended to be drastically different from that of the previous year, for better or for worse. A near miss at the Stanley Cup could either be a motivating springboard to future success or a spirit-crushing defeat – something for Vancouver to keep in mind, given the Canucks’ current struggles.

It might also be that a team’s roster turnover from year to year has a lot to do with the severity of their “hangover.” Teams that stay mostly intact following a Stanley Cup victory might have an easier time bouncing back the following season. The ’10-’11 Blackhawks, gutted by free agency, would certainly bear this out; some of their struggles could be attributed to the fact that they returned a mere 55 percent of their minutes from 2010 to 2011. The Bruins, conversely, lost only three players in the offseason: Tomas Kaberle, Mark Recchi, and Michael Ryder.

However, a quick linear regression of the percentage of ice time a team returns against those teams’ changes in points from their Cup-winning year to the season after proved statistically inconclusive. In the model, only 20 percent of the variation in points could be explained by their roster turnover, in part due to the limited data. The NHL has only compiled individual player minutes since 1999.

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Whether it’s appropriate to term these declines as “hangovers” is another question. A stellar regular season is a remarkable achievement in itself; making it to the Stanley Cup Finals is another thing entirely. It takes the convergence of many favorable circumstances to put together a run like the Bruins did – sufficient health, lights-out goaltending, and three Game 7 victories in one playoff season are not things you can bank on every year.

The reality may be that such success is not sustainable over a period of multiple seasons unless a team is approaching the level of dynasty, like the Red Wings in the mid- to late-‘90s, formidable on both ends of the ice. I doubt any realistic fan would put the Bruins in this category. Though they boast the league’s best goaltender in Tim Thomas, the offensive weapons in front of him, while serviceable, cannot be considered dominant. Certainly, young forwards Tyler Seguin, Brad Marchand, and Milan Lucic have the potential to get there in time, but at ages 20, 23, and 23 respectively, they can’t be counted on yet to carry an elite offense.

In short, Bruins fans could be in for a long, frustrating season. At 4-7-0, the Bruins have exhibited all the symptoms of the Stanley Cup Hangover, showing just how difficult it is to meet fans’ expectations after finally reaching the mountaintop. While there’s still plenty of hockey left to play, this doesn’t look like the sort of team cut out for a repeat. So cherish the Cup while you can. It may not be around much longer.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Stats Driven is powered by David Sabino, who over the last two decades has been a source of statistical analysis on the pages of Sports Illustrated, New York Times, and Chicago Tribune. David has written about all seven recent Boston-area championships for Sports Illustrated Presents commemorative issues, was the creator of such long time features as SI’s Player Value Ranking, NBA Player Rating and long running fantasy football and baseball columns.

He has also authored or made contributions to many books, including the Sports Illustrated’s 100 Fenway: A Fascinating First Century.

Now living in Marblehead, he’s focusing his attention on the Boston sports scene, specifically delving into the numbers affecting the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, with the goal of informing and entertaining real fans. You can follow him on Twitter at @SabinoSports.

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