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Going from worst to first in the span of five years, the 2021-22 Colorado Avalanche overwhelmed opponents en route to defeating 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 far superior shot differential, Cale Makar submitted one of the best playoff performances by a defenseman ever en route to capturing 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 aftermath of winning a title is one of the few appropriate times to try and contextualize a team’s championship in a historical sense. So let's determine where the 2022 Avalanche rank all-time.
I love and appreciate hockey history as much as anyone, but for the purposes of this exercise, we’re going to limit teams to the post-1967 expansion, post-original-six era.
Nineteen of those Cup champions in the post-expansion era 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 a single 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 we numerically rank the top 20.
They all count the same in the end
1985-86 Montreal Canadiens
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’re not in the business of disrespecting champions but it’s a reality that some Cup-winners stand the test of time, while others fade into the background to most. The 1986 Canadiens are perhaps best known for Patrick Roy’s ascension from rookie unknown to playoff MVP, while the 1990 Oilers are defined by the fact that this was their lone win without Wayne Gretzky.
As for the other teams, well, there’s not much to romanticize about the trap-era Devils, the 2006 Hurricanes beat the worst Final opponent of the 21st century, while both Kings teams sputtered into the playoffs as the No. 8 and No. 6 seeds, respectively, before turning it all around. And while we’re thrilled for Alexander Ovechkin, the Capitals’ summer antics are far more salient than what transpired during the five-game title-clinching series.
2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins
2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins
2018-19 St. Louis Blues
Few would’ve anticipated either Penguins group or the Blues winning the Cup in their respective years, but coaching changes invigorated all three of these champions. Dan Bylsma took over for the fired Michel Therrien in 2009, Mike Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston, while Craig Berube succeeded Mike Yeo.
It took the 2009 Penguins and 2019 Blues seven games to dispatch their Final opponent, while the 2016 Penguins needed six games to defeat the Sharks. All that matters in the end is the moment where you get to lift the trophy, but there were bumps along the road for all three of these teams.
1970-71 Montreal Canadiens
1992-93 Montreal Canadiens
1993-94 New York Rangers
1998-99 Dallas Stars
2002-03 New Jersey Devils
2014-15 Chicago Blackhawks
2010-11 Boston Bruins
2016-17 Pittsburgh Penguins
The 1992-93 Canadiens are known as the Cardiac Kids for their 10 overtime wins during their playoff run, but other teams can adopt the nickname. The 1971 Habs had their own internal problems to fight through, with Henri Richard openly feuding with head coach Al McNeil during the seven-game Final.
The 1994 Rangers were in consideration for the top 10, winning the Presidents’ Trophy but it also needed a double-overtime Game 7 victory in one of hockey’s iconic games to reach the Cup. The same could go for the 1999 Stars, who also finished atop the league during the regular season but played in eight overtime contests, including their controversial triple-overtime Cup-winner scored by Brett Hull against the Sabres. It took four multi-overtime games for the 2015 Blackhawks to advance to the Final as well.
The 2017 Penguins also needed an OT win in the East final to get to the Cup, while the 2003 Devils and 2011 Bruins were pushed to the brink in seven-game triumphs. These teams gave their fan bases heart attacks, but it was all worth it in the end.
Lockouts, pandemics, and other abridgements
2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks
2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning
2020-21 Tampa Bay Lightning
It’s difficult to quantify where the Lightning’s back-to-back victories rank not only because they’re fairly recent, but they occurred during the height of a global pandemic. In fact, winning during a pandemic should be a reason to move the Lightning up the list, but if we’re being truly pedantic, their best team probably was the 2018-19 squad that promptly got swept by the Blue Jackets. We wouldn’t be surprised if history favors the 2020 team.
As for the Blackhawks, we have to keep it to hockey only, given the off-ice horrors that occurred during their tenure. They posted a remarkable 36-7-5 record in a lockout shortened season, and were 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 certainly 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 for having relatively underwhelming seasons, before crushing the competition in the playoffs. Bobby Orr’s flying goal is one of hockey’s great moments, but the 1972 Bruins were the better outfit anyways. The 1988 Oilers were the worst of the four Gretzky-era Cup-winning teams, while the 1992 Penguins stumbled through their title defense, before authoring a 16-5 playoff record.
Nobody saw the 1995 Devils blanking the Red Wings, while the 1997 Red Wings used the regular season as a practice run. The following year, the Red Wings once again peaked during the playoffs, sweeping the Capitals to finish off a 16-6 postseason. The 2007 Ducks also followed the same path and though they finished just short of the West’s No. 1 seed, they annihilated the competition in the postseason with their own 16-5 mark.
On the cusp of sustained greatness
1967-68 Montreal Canadiens
1973-74 Philadelphia Flyers
1979-80 New York Islanders
1990-91 Pittsburgh Penguins
2009-10 Chicago Blackhawks
There is a redundant quality to greatness and we wanted to select not only the best Cup winners in hockey history, but wanted 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 victory of four over six years, while the 1974 Flyers repeated the following year with a more seasoned group.
The 1980 Islanders took over the throne vacated by the Canadiens in their first of four consecutive victories, the 1991 Penguins were defined by Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr’s breakthroughs, while the 2010 Blackhawks were led by Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, both of whom were barely legal drinking age in the States. These are all elite teams by definition, but there are better ones in reserve.
In consideration for Top 10, but just missed the cut
20. 1968-69 Montreal Canadiens
19. 1980-81 New York Islanders
18. 2021-22 Colorado Avalanche
17. 1978-79 Montreal Canadiens
16. 1982-83 New York Islanders
15. 1995-96 Colorado Avalanche
14. 1986-87 Edmonton Oilers
13. 1972-73 Montreal Canadiens
12. 1971-72 Boston Bruins
11. 1974-75 Philadelphia Flyers
It’s always tough to cut some of hockey’s greatest teams from the list, but it’s an exclusive club for a reason. I went back-and-forth about the 1975 Flyers, 1972 Bruins and 1973 Canadiens, before settling on the 2008 Red Wings: this team carried 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 in favour of the 1970 Bruins as the superior Boston team, while the 1973 team is the fourth-best Canadiens team of the decade. As for the 1985 Oilers, they 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 effort.
Perhaps the 2022 Avalanche will skyrocket up this list in the future, but I wanted to be mindful of avoiding recency bias. There are parallels to the 1996 Avalanche team, who defeated an all-time regular season juggernaut in the 132-point Red Wings, and the 2022 team, full of youthful stars, could be on the verge of a sustained run at greatness.
The best of the best
1976-77 Montreal Canadiens
1983-84 Edmonton Oilers
1977-78 Montreal Canadiens
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 Canadiens
2007-08 Detroit Red Wings
Perhaps the top ten list is too reverential towards teams from a bygone period, but the 2001 Avalanche, 2002 Red Wings and 2008 Red Wings are some of the best representatives from the modern era. The first four spots were locked in: the 1977 Canadiens are the gold standard, while you could make a case for almost all of the Gretzky-led Oilers teams in the top five. The 1989 Flames are often forgotten amid the Oilers run, but this team went wire-to-wire as the best team in the NHL, exacted revenge for their 1986 loss to the Canadiens, while their photo with the Cup is a veritable Hall of Fame jacket in and of itself.
Every team in the top 10, with the exception of the 1985 Oilers, won the President’s Trophy and were far and away the best team in the league. The 1985 Oilers get a postseason bump as it’s where Gretzky recorded an NHL-record 47 points, while Paul Coffey finished second with 37.
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