From worst to first in the span of five years, the 2021-22 Colorado avalanche stunned opponents en route to beating the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning to win the franchise’s first title since 2000-01.
Colorado’s pace translated into a much better shot differential, Cale Makar served one of the best play-off appearances by a defender ever en route to capture the Conn Smythe Trophy, and a dynamic core of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen and Makar will have the Avalanche ready to defend their title starting next fall.
In the wake of winning a title, this is one of the few appropriate times to contextualize a team’s championship in a historical sense. So let’s determine where the 2022 Avalanche always scores.
I love the history of hockey as much as anyone, but for the purposes of this exercise, we’re going to limit teams to the post-1967 expansion, the era after the original six.
Nineteen of those post-expansion-era cup champions also won the Presidents’ Trophy, awarded to the team with the best regular-season record, which I’m also taking into account. Going wire-to-wire in one year is a pretty good barometer of dominance, so we’re working backwards here to group all 54 post-expansion teams into superlative categories before ranking the top 20 numerically.
They all count the same in the end
1985-86 Montreal Canadians
1989-90 Edmonton Oilers
1999-00 New Jersey Devils
2003-04 Tampa Bay Lightning
2005-06 Carolina Hurricanes
2011-12 Los Angeles Kings
2013-14 Los Angeles Kings
2017-18 Washington Capitals
We are not in the business of disrespecting champions, but it is a reality that some cup winners stand the test of time while others fade into the background for most. The 1986 Canadiens are perhaps best known for Patrick Roy’s climb from rookie unknown to playoff MVP, while the 1990 Oilers are defined by the fact that this was their only win without Wayne Gretzky.
As for the other teams, there’s not much to romanticize about the trap-age devils, the 2006 Hurricanes defeated the worst finals opponent of the 21st century, while both Kings teams sputtered into the playoffs as the No. 8 and number 6 seeds, before flipping it all the way around. And while we’re thrilled with Alexander Ovechkin, the Capitals’ summertime antics are far more striking than what happened during the five-game title-clinching series.
Mid Season Covers
2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh Penguins 2015-16
2018-19 St Louis Blues
Few expected the Penguins group or the Blues to win the Cup in their respective years, but changes in coaching gave all three champions a boost. Dan Bylsma took over from the fired Michel Therrien in 2009, Mike Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston, while Craig Berube succeeded Mike Yeo.
The 2009 Penguins and 2019 Blues needed seven games to defeat their last opponent, while the 2016 Penguins took six games to defeat the Sharks. In the end, all that matters is when you get to lift the trophy, but there were bumps along the way for all three of these teams.
1970-71 Montreal Canadians
1992-93 Montreal Canadians
1993-94 New York Rangers
1998-99 Dallas Stars
2002-03 New Jersey Devils
2014-15 Chicago Blackhawks
2010-11 Boston Bruins
Pittsburgh Penguins 2016-17
The 1992-93 Canadiens are known as the Cardiac Kids for their 10 overtime wins during their playoff run, but other teams may adopt the nickname. The 1971 Habs had their own internal issues to fight on, with Henri Richard openly arguing with head coach Al McNeil during the seven-game final.
The 1994 Rangers qualified for the top 10 and won the Presidents’ Trophy, but it also took a double win in Game 7 in one of the iconic hockey games to reach the Cup. The same could be true for the 1999 Stars, who also finished top of the league during the regular season but played in eight extras, including their controversial three-time cup winner, scored by Brett Hull against the Sabres. It took the 2015 Blackhawks four games with multiple overtime to advance to the Finals as well.
The 2017 Penguins also needed an OT win in the East final to reach the Cup, while the 2003 Devils and 2011 Bruins were pushed to the brink in seven-game wins. These teams gave their fans heart attacks, but it was all worth it in the end.
Exclusions, pandemics and other abbreviations
2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks
2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning
2020-21 Tampa Bay Lightning
It is difficult to quantify where the Lightning’s consecutive victories stand, not only because they are quite recent, but they have taken place during the height of a global pandemic. In fact, winning during a pandemic should be a reason to put the Lightning higher on the list, but if we’re really being pedantic, their best team was probably the 2018-19 squad that was promptly wiped out by the Blue Jackets. We wouldn’t be surprised if history is in favor of the 2020 team.
As for the Blackhawks, we’ll just have to stick to hockey, given the off-ice horrors that have occurred during their tenure. They set a remarkable record of 36-7-5 in a shortened season with lockout and became the last team to win the Presidents’ Trophy and the Stanley Cup. Was this the best team the Blackhawks ever had? Some would argue the 2010 team was better, I’m definitely in that camp.
Saving their best for last
1969-70 Boston Bruins
1987-88 Edmonton Oilers
1991-92 Pittsburgh Penguins
1994-95 New Jersey Devils
1996-97 Detroit Red Wings
1997-98 Detroit Red Wings
2006-07 Anaheim Ducks
It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish, and these teams are grouped together because they’ve had relatively disappointing seasons, before crushing the competition in the playoffs. Bobby Orr’s flying goal is one of the great moments of hockey, but the 1972 Bruins were the better outfit anyway. The 1988 Oilers were the worst of the four Gretzky-era Cup-winning teams, while the 1992 Penguins stumbled through their title defense before setting a 16-5 playoff record.
No one saw the 1995 Devils beat the Red Wings, while the 1997 Red Wings used the regular season as a practice run. The following year, the Red Wings peaked again in the playoffs, winning the Capitals to finish a postseason 16-6. The 2007 Ducks also followed the same path and although they finished just below the West’s No. 1, they destroyed the competition in the postseason with their own 16-5 mark.
On the point of lasting greatness
1967-68 Montreal Canadians
Philadelphia Flyers 1973-74
New York Islanders 1979-80
Pittsburgh Penguins from 1990-91
2009-10 Chicago Blackhawks
There is a superfluous quality to greatness and we wanted not only to select the best cup winners in hockey history, but also to pay attention to the journey along the way. Few would imagine the 1968 Canadiens as a youthful group, but this was their first cup win of four in six years, while the 1974 Flyers repeated the following year with a more experienced group.
The 1980 Islanders took over the throne vacated by the Canadiens in their first of four straight wins, the 1991 Penguins were determined by Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr’s breakthroughs, while the 2010 Blackhawks were led by Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, who both barely legal drinking age in the United States. These are all elite teams by definition, but there are better ones in reserve.
Considering for Top 10, but just missed the cut
20. 1968-69 Montreal Canadians
19. 1980-81 New York Islanders
18. 2021-22 Colorado Avalanche
17. 1978-79 Montreal Canadians
16. 1982-83 New York Islanders
15. 1995-96 Colorado Avalanche
14. 1986-87 Edmonton Oilers
13. 1972-73 Montreal Canadians
12. 1971-72 Boston Bruins
11. 1974-75 Philadelphia Flyers
It’s always hard to cross some of the best hockey teams off the list, but it’s an exclusive club for a reason. I went back and forth over the 1975 Flyers, 1972 Bruins, and 1973 Canadiens, before settling on the 2008 Red Wings: This team had an air of reverence, which isn’t to say the former three didn’t, but the Flyers were defined by their physicality. Some try to argue for the 1970 Bruins as the superior Boston team, while the 1973 team is the fourth best Canadiens team of the decade. The 1985 Oilers were one of the greatest offensive teams of all time, but they were pushed to seven games by the Flyers, where Ron Hextall stole the Conn Smythe Trophy in a losing attempt.
Perhaps the 2022 Avalanche will skyrocket this list in the future, but I wanted to keep in mind to avoid recency bias. There are parallels to the 1996 Avalanche team beating an all-time regular-season juggernaut in the 132-point Red Wings, and the 2022 team, full of youthful stars, could be on the brink of a sustained run to greatness.
The best of the best
1976-77 Montreal Canadians
1983-84 Edmonton Oilers
1977-78 Montreal Canadians
1984-85 Edmonton Oilers
2001-02 Detroit Red Wings
1988-89 Calgary Flames
1981-82 New York Islanders
2000-01 Colorado avalanche
1975-76 Montreal Canadians
2007-08 Detroit Red Wings
Perhaps the top ten list is too reverent for teams from a bygone era, but the 2001 Avalanche, 2002 Red Wings and 2008 Red Wings are some of the best representatives of the modern age. The first four spots were closed: the 1977 Canadiens are the gold standard, while you could argue for almost all Gretzky-led Oilers teams in the top five. The Flames of 1989 are often forgotten on the Oilers run, but this team went wire-to-wire as the best team in the NHL, exacting revenge for their 1986 loss to the Canadiens, while their Cup photo was a real Hall of Fame is a jacket in itself.
Every team in the top 10, with the exception of the 1985 Oilers, won the President’s Trophy and was by far the best team in the league. The 1985 Oilers get a postseason bump as Gretzky set an NHL record of 47 points here, while Paul Coffey finished second with 37.
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