How often does the best NHL team win the Stanley Cup?

Yesterday, the Nashville Predators won their first Presidents’ Trophy, awarded for having the best record in the league. With the playoffs starting on April 11, what does history say about their chances of hoisting the Stanley Cup by merit of finishing with the best record in the league?

Since 1926, the Stanley Cup has been under the control of the NHL. That is when the Western Hockey League (WHL) folded, leading to the end of non-NHL teams vying for the Cup. That year will be the starting point when examining how often the best team wins the Stanley Cup.

While this article will examine the last 90 NHL seasons (not counting 2017-18), it will include 91 total teams. This is because the 1932-33 season saw a tie between the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings for the league’s best record.

Making the Stanley Cup Finals 

First, let’s take a look at how often the team that finished the season with the best record makes the Stanley Cup finals.

Era Odds of making finals
Founding (1926-42) 8/17 (47.05%)
Original Six (1943-67) 16/25 (64%)
Expansion (1968-92) 17/25 (68%)
Modern (1993-2017) 8/24 (33.33%)
Total (1926-2017) 49/91 (53.84%)

The history of the NHL would suggest that Nashville odds’s of making the finals are slightly above 50/50. However, since the NHL’s modern era (starting with the 1993 playoffs) the best team in the league has struggled to make the finals as often as they once did.

Once in the best team tends to win

If we take a look at the odds of the team with the best record winning the Stanley Cup before the start of the playoffs, the numbers go lower. Starting with the 1993 playoffs, the team with the best record only has a 1/4 chance of winning the championship.

Era Odds of winning Finals at beginning of playoffs
Founding 6/17 (35.29%)
Original Six 14/25 (56%)
Expansion 14/25 (56%)
Modern 6/24 (25%)
Total 40/91 (43.95%)

However, these numbers improve drastically if the team with the best record makes the Stanley Cup Finals. Historically, the best team has won it all 40 out of the 49 times it has made the Finals. This number has also held steady over the history of the sport.

Era Odds of winning the Cup once in the finals
Founding 6/8 (75%)
Original Six 14/16 (87.5%)
Expansion 14/17 (82.35%)
Modern 6/8 (75%)
Total 40/49 (81.63%)

How does this all break down by team?

Here is a break down of the last 91 seasons (counting this year) of the NHL by which teams finish with the best record. It also shows if the team made and subsequently won the finals in the year they finished with the best record. Over this span, the Canadiens, Red Wings and Bruins have dominated the NHL in terms of finishing with the best record.

Team Finished with best record Made Finals Won Finals
Montreal Canadiens 21 15 14
Detroit Red Wings 18 10 8
Boston Bruins 14 7 4
Toronto Maple Leafs 4 3 2
Chicago Blackhawks 4 1 1
NY Rangers 4 1 1
Dallas Stars 3 2 2
Edmonton Oilers 3 2 2
Philadelphia Flyers 3 2 1
Washington Capitals 3 0 0
NY Islanders 2 2 2
Calgary Flames 2 1 1
Colorado Rockies 2 1 1
Vancouver Canucks 2 1 0
*Ottawa Senators 1 1 1
Buffalo Sabers 1 0 0
Ottawa Senators 1 0 0
Pittsburgh Penguins 1 0 0
San Jose 1 0 0
St. Louis Blues 1 0 0
Nashville Predators 1 TBD TBD

*This is the original version of the Ottawa Senators that played in the NHL from 1917-34


Sources and Notes:

Tables and chart make using Google Docs (Spreadsheets)

Image source: [1930 Stanley Cup| Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain]


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