The NHL's 10 best single-season teams
The following appeared in the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED book Hockey's Greatest, a collection from the editors of SI examining the best of the best on the ice. To purchase a copy of the book, click here.
Hockey, more than any sport, has been ruled by dynasties. From the 1950s through the 1980s, especially, teams won titles in chunks, from Detroit’s taking four Stanley Cups in six years at the beginning of that stretch, to Edmonton’s grabbing five in seven seasons, ending in 1988–89. The Maple Leafs and Islanders had dynastic runs in those decades, as did the Canadiens, more than once.
In choosing the great single-season team panelists were usually able to focus attention on a particularly outstanding team within a dynasty, even though lesser editions did draw the occasional stray vote.
In two instances, two closely clustered teams landed in our top 10. One set came from the Canadiens that won four straight titles in the late ’70s. The other set was, interestingly, the Red Wings teams of ’95–96 and ’96–97. The curious detail there is that the ’95–96 team, though it won a record 62 regular-season games, did not take the Cup that year, losing to Colorado in the Western Conference finals. That postseason failure takes some burnish off whatever dynastic claims Detroit might have had, but the record was enough to elevate that team to a place among the alltime greats.
How We Ranked Them
For this book SI writers and editors were polled before the 2014–15 season and asked to submit Top 10 lists for 16 categories. Votes were tallied with 10 points awarded for a first-place vote, nine points for a second-place vote and so on. Voters were also asked to justify their choices, and those comments appear with each Top 10 selection. In most cases, if one panelist had a player ranked higher than his colleagues, he was asked to speak on that player’s behalf.
Mark Beech—former SI Senior Editor
Brian Cazeneuve—former SI Staff Writer
Michael Farber—SI Special Contributor
Kostya Kennedy—SI Special Contributor
Sarak Kwak—SI Associate Editor
Pierre McGuire—SI Special Contributor
E.M. Swift former—SI Senior Writer
No. 10: 1996–97 Red Wings
38-26-18 in regular season
They weren’t overpowering but were a team of great grit and great grace. Laden with alltime stars—Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov—the Wings delivered Detroit the Cup it had been waiting for since 1955. — Kostya Kennedy
FROM THE SI VAULT, June 16, 1997: Yzerman was slowly circling the ice, smiling as brightly as the 19,983 faces in the arena. ”I’m glad the game is over,” Yzerman said. “But I wish it had never ended. Since I was five years old, I’ve watched the Stanley Cup. I have stayed up, made a point of watching it being presented and always dreamed of the day that maybe I would get there.” — Michael Farber
No. 9: 1995–96 Red Wings
62-13-7 in regular season
Just an overwhelming group of players, led by Scotty Bowman, the best coach in the NHL history. — Pierre McGuire
FROM THE SI VAULT, April 29, 1996: On the eve of the playoffs Bowman told reporters, “There’s nothing so uncertain as a sure thing. Good night.” He said that at two o’clock in the afternoon. But the regular season showed that the Red Wings are the deepest, most versatile team in the NHL. The Detroit lineup is replete with unsung heroes like Kris Draper, Tim Taylor, Greg Johnson and penalty-killing specialist Doug Brown are all fourth-liners who do more than take up space. The depth makes the Red Wings tougher to shut down than one-line teams like the Blues. It also makes them less vulnerable to injuries than a team dependent on one player, as the Rangers are on Mark Messier. “Detroit has a lot of guys who can do a lot of things, but it also appears they have a lack of egos,” Winnipeg GM John Paddock says. “They’ve seemed to put those other things—contracts, ice time—aside and concentrated on winning. That’s why they won 62 during the season.” —M.F.
No. 8: 1974–75 Flyers
51-18-11 in regular season
A Hart winner (Bobby Clarke), a Vezina winner (Bernie Parent) and the league’s most wins led to a second straight Cup. The Flyers were deep, colorful and talented and if they weren’t just beating you, the Bullies were knocking you silly. — K.K.
FROM THE SI VAULT, May 26, 1975: Will Kate Smith arrive just before game time, sing “God Bless America,” and then cheer the Flyers to another victory? Or will she do it on tape? In living color Kate the Great had a perfect record. “If she really means that much,” coach Fred Shero grumbled, “I think we ought to put her on the payroll.” — Mark Mulvoy
No. 7: 1955–56 Canadiens
40-15-10 in regular season
The dynasty starts, the first of five straight Stanley Cups. The Rocket had not begun his slow fade into twilight. Along for the ride were some of the best, and most important, players in history: Plante, Béliveau, Geoffrion, Moore, Doug Harvey. That is basically a Hall of Fame wing. — M.F.
FROM THE SI VAULT, Jan. 23, 1956: It is quite possible that no hockey team in history has ever been led by two such brilliant craftsmen. It is likewise probable that no two stars on the same team were ever so exactly opposite in temperament as are Maurice Richard and Jean Béliveau. “With Maurice,” said managing director Frank J. Selke, “his moves are powered by instinctive reflexes. Maurice can’t learn from lectures. He does everything by instinct and with sheer power. Béliveau, on the other hand, is a perfect coach’s hockey player because he studies and learns. He’s moving and planning all the time. The difference between the two best hockey players in the game today is simply this: Béliveau is a perfectionist, Richard is an opportunist.” — Whitney Tower
No. 6: 1951–52 Red Wings
44-14-12 in regular season
Seven future Hall of Famers formed the heart of this Detroit team that was led by a young Gordie Howe. They cruised through the regular season, then won all eight of their playoff games, four by shutout. — E.M. Swift
FROM THE SI VAULT, Oct. 18, 1954: Hockey has never pretended to imitate Major League Baseball. But last week, as the NHL opened its season, fans sensed that hockey, too, has its New York Yankees. Their names: the Detroit Red Wings, who have won the NHL [regular-season] title six years running. In three of those years the Wings have also won the Stanley Cup.
No. 5: 1981–82 Islanders
54-16-10 in regular season
The Islanders needed a rally in the deciding game to survive their opening-round playoff series against Pittsburgh, but finished the postseason with nine straight wins. — Brian Cazeneuve
FROM THE SI VAULT, May 24, 1982: The Islanders had been dominant in the series. Indeed, they have been that dominant for the past three years. Said coach Al Arbour. “The first year they said it was a fluke, the next we proved it wasn’t, and this year we proved that we are a great team.” — E.M.S.
No. 4: 1971–72 Bruins
54-31-11 in regular season
As colorful as they were dominant, the Big Bad Bruins would outscore you, outfight you and later outparty you. In addition to future Hall of Famers Phil Esposito, Johnny Bucyk and Gerry Cheevers, they featured Bobby Orr in his scintillating prime. — E.M.S.
FROM THE SI VAULT, May 22, 1972: One aspect of Orr’s genius is not to let the spotlight stray from him at the big moments. Here he was against the Rangers, hockey’s best player, Bobby Bad Knee, personally settling the bloody war between the sport’s top teams—just as he had in the final Stanley Cup game against St. Louis two years ago. — M.M.
No. 3: 1977–78 Canadiens
59-10-11 in regular season
Montreal won its third of four straight Stanley Cups with no apparent weaknesses. The team featured the league’s leading scorer (Guy Lafleur), top goaltender (Ken Dryden) and the best defensive forward (Bob Gainey). The Canadiens went unbeaten in 28 consecutive games and never trailed in a playoff series. — B.C.
FROM THE SI VAULT, March 6, 1978: On their record-breaking 23-0-5 tear, the Canadiens enjoyed the streak while it lasted and talked about keeping it going as long as possible—“so no other team will ever break our record,” as Guy Lafleur said. In the course of their stunning streak, the Canadiens played every NHL rival except Minnesota at least once. And they pulled it off despite a staggering succession of ailments. All-Star defenseman Guy Lapointe missed 23 of the 28 games, checking specialist Bob Gainey was lost for nine, and injuries and illnesses briefly sidelined Lafleur, captain Yvan Cournoyer and center Pierre Larouche. But flaunting Montreal’s enviable depth, coach Scotty Bowman kept replacing the lame and halt with fresh troops. — Jerry Kirshenbaum, SI, March 6, 1978
No. 2 1983–84 Oilers
57-18-5 in regular season
Besides Wayne Gretzky, the team that won the first of Edmonton’s five Stanley Cups boasted a raft of outrageously talented and carefree young players, including Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson and Grant Fuhr. It may not have been the best team ever, but it was the sexiest. — Mark Beech
FROM THE SI VAULT, May 28, 1984: In wresting the Cup from the Islanders four games to one with a 5–2 victory, the Oilers proved that creative and high-scoring offense can win big over an orthodox bump-and-grind defense. Edmonton may well have launched a new era in the pro game. The sleek may yet inherit the ice. Besides being the highest-scoring team ever to win the Cup, the Oilers are also the first NHL team to take the Cup west of Chicago and the youngest modern-era expansion team to win the title. “I hope we’re an influence on the game,” said Wayne Gretzky after emerging from the rollicking chaos of the Edmonton locker room. “We proved that an offensive team can win the Cup. That can’t do anything but help hockey. We showed that you can win by skating and being physical without having to fight all the time.” — Jack Falla
No. 1: 1976–77 Canadiens
60-8-12 in regular season
With 10 future Hall of Famers on the team, including coach Scotty Bowman, the ’76–77 Canadiens faced their toughest competition in scrimmages at practice. Setting the NHL record for most team points, these Canadians outscored opponents by 2.7 goals per game, and lost just twice in the postseason. — Sarah Kwak
FROM THE SI VAULT, May 23, 1977: Just how good are these Canadiens? In 94 regular-season and playoff games they outscored the opposition 440 goals to 194. They had the leading goal scorer (Steve Shutt), the leading point maker (Guy Lafleur) and the best goaltending tandem (Ken Dryden and Bunny Larocque). They have swept the last two finals, and their two-year playoff record is a remarkable 24–3—they lost only to the Islanders, twice this season and once a year ago. Says Tom Johnson, who played defense for the 1956–60 Montreal clubs and now is the Bruins’ assistant GM, “These Canadiens have every element a team needs, and it’s the hardest-working, best-checking great team I’ve ever seen.” —Peter Gammons