Ranking the top 10 NHL dynasties of all time

With their sixth Super Bowl championship, following their ninth AFC title, Tom Brady's New England Patriots are one of the greatest dynasties in sports history. In fact, ESPN's Ian O'Connor declared it the best of the best: "It's time for the nation to embrace the non-debate. The Patriots' dynasty is the greatest in the history of American sports, college or pro, and the contempt for it outside Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut should be eliminated along with the Rams."

Yes, O'Connor is saying the Patriots have accomplished something that no one in the history of the National Hockey League can claim: "The Patriots could never fall back on the margin for error allowed in best-of-five and best-of-seven series."

That's true ... but one person's "margin for error" is another's "winning a war of attrition." Brady played three playoff games after 16 in the regular season before winning a championship. Alex Ovechkin played 82 games and 24 more in the playoffs before winning the Stanley Cup.

We're not trying to do a "please like my sport" here, although admittedly that's an inevitability for an American hockey fan in these types of discussions. We're simply saying that for the greatest dynasties in NHL history, surviving the grueling gauntlet of any era to win multiple championships is worthy of immortality. Or at least a trip to Disney World.

Here's our ranking of the 10 greatest dynasties in NHL history. A few things to keep in mind about this countdown:


  • We take the context of different eras into account, including the number of teams in the league, the playoff format and other aspects.

  • Hence, there is a "degree of difficulty" curve for teams playing in the modern era vs. the Original Six era. Especially for teams that, for example, might have had to deal with increased player movement and the salary cap.

  • Our definitions of "dynasties" and their length might not always sync up with yours, but just go with it.



Thanks to the ESPN NHL editorial staff, Hockey Hall of Fame writer Michael Farber and others for their input. Now, who has the greatest NHL dynasty?

This Leafs team gets a degree of difficulty nod for winning three straight Stanley Cups in 70-game seasons, although the NHL was still made up of just six teams at that time. They went 24-12 in that three-year stretch in the postseason. Overall, they won four Stanley Cups in six seasons during a time when the Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks were stacked.

This was not a dominant regular-season team: They finished first in the regular season only once, and finished with a points percentage above .600 just once (in 1962). And they lost twice in the semifinals between their third and fourth Cup wins. But these teams had 10 or more Hall of Fame players, including Frank Mahovlich, Red Kelly and Dave Keon. Oh, and Dick Duff.

At first glance, one might want to dip back to their 1942 Cup to really broaden this dynasty, but Ted "Teeder" Kennedy wasn't on that team. He was there for all five Stanley Cups of this seven-season run, so we'll make him our point of demarcation. (Keep in mind that the first Cup of this run occurred in a 50-game season, the next three in 60-game seasons and the final one in a 70-game season.)

That's five Stanley Cup Final appearances and five Stanley Cups during the Original Six era, which is impressive. Less impressive: That the Leafs only finished first in the regular season once in that run -- in 1947-48, with a team featuring five Hall of Famers, including the soon-retired Syl Apps -- and missed the four-team playoff completely in 1945-46. Either of these Leafs teams could have finished ninth or 10th, as they represent the most successful stretches in franchise history. For whatever that's worth.

Later on in this ranking, you'll see why this 1960s run for the Canadiens is the lesser of their dynasties. They had three first-place finishes in this five-season ride, making the Final all five times and winning four Cups. It's worth noting that this Canadiens group bridged an era for the NHL: Their first two Cups were won in 70-game, two-playoff-round Original Six seasons while their other two were won in seasons of 74 and 76 games and three-round playoffs thanks to the league's 1967 expansion to 10 teams.

Hence, their Cup wins in 1968 and 1969 were against the fledgling St. Louis Blues, against whom they went 8-0, outscoring them 23-10. So these playoffs had a bit of that "1980 U.S. Olympic team beats the Russians but still has to get past Finland" vibe after getting through the Original Six to face an expansion team.

The nine-season stretch is the dawn of the Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay Era. The Wings lost in the Cup Final in consecutive 60-game seasons (1947-48 and 1948-49) before capturing their first title since 1943. They'd win three more Cups and make the final a total of seven times in this dynastic run. In the regular season, they finished in first place seven consecutive seasons.

The 1952 Cup championship team was one of the most dominant of that era: first in goals, first in goals against, 44-14-12 and a perfect 8-0 in the playoffs. That team featured seven future Hall of Famers, including Howe, who led the NHL in points from 1950 to '54. Please also note that the 1951-52 Red Wings championship team inspired Pete and Jerry Cusimano, who owned a seafood spot in Detroit's Eastern Market, to first hurl an octopus on the ice in honor of the eight wins it took to capture the Cup.

Let me explain.

In the history of the NHL, it has never been harder to establish a dynasty. There were 30 teams when the Blackhawks had this six-season run. There was a salary cap that necessitated a massive changeover in the roster after their first championship. There was free agency. There were different playoff formats. There was the overall level of talent in competition -- including exceptional leaps in quality of coaching and goaltending over the past two decades -- that players who competed on many of these other dynastic teams said was at an apex for the NHL.

This Blackhawks team finished first in its division twice during this run, although there was only one season (2010-11) in which the Hawks had a points percentage of less than .600. They had two straight first-round playoff losses in between their first and second Cups, which doesn't help them. Nor does the fact that the Pittsburgh Penguins won three Stanley Cups around this time as well, albeit in a span of nine years.

But in the salary cap era, I fall on the side of the debate that considers this run a dynasty. The core of the team -- Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, the effective years of Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Joel Quenneville -- was its backbone. GM Stan Bowman filled in around the edges. If Sidney Crosby's Penguins capture another Stanley Cup in the next three seasons, they might eclipse this Blackhawks run. But in the cap era, no one has put together six seasons like the Blackhawks did. This degree of difficulty puts them ahead of some Original Six champions.

The length of this modern dynasty can be tabulated in two ways. You can go with those three Stanley Cups in six years from 1996 to 2002, or you can extend it back to 1995, when the Red Wings lost in the Stanley Cup Final to the New Jersey Devils. The latter gives them three Stanley Cups, four conference titles, five first-place finishes and six of eight seasons with a points percentage of over .600. So we'll go with that.

From their first Cup Final appearance to their 2002 Cup, the Wings saw the NHL expand from 26 to 30 teams. Unlike the Blackhawks, the Red Wings didn't have to deal with the salary cap, which obviously had its advantages in 2002 when Detroit had no less than nine Hall of Famers on its roster, all over the age of 30. But the Blackhawks also didn't have to deal with a nemesis like the Colorado Avalanche blocking their path to the Cup Final in their conference: Detroit lost to the Avs in the playoffs three times during this eight-year stretch.

But when they made the final round, the Wings made it count: In the three years they won the Cup, Detroit went a combined 12-1 in the Final. As modern dynasties go, their run from the mid-1990s into the new millennium set the bar for dynasty-seeking franchises.

(For what it's worth, the bloody rivalry worked both ways: The Avalanche won two Stanley Cups in 1996 and 2001, but couldn't find their way through Detroit in two of their four trips to the conference final. Oh, what could have been, Joe Sakic & Co.)

It might be a reach to include that 1953 Stanley Cup, but with Maurice "Rocket" Richard, Jacques Plante, Doug Harvey and Bernie Geoffrion as the through line to their five straight Cup wins, we'll allow it.

(Plante, by the way, would "invent" the goalie mask during this run, wearing one in a game in 1959 to spark a league-wide trend.)

This was the first team in NHL history to win five straight Stanley Cups, and the Canadiens did it convincingly: Going 40-9 (!) in the playoffs, including two series sweeps in 1960 for their final championship. They had four first-place finishes in these 70-game seasons, finishing with a points percentage above .600 five times in eight seasons. (They lost in the Final in the two seasons before their 1953 win.) Again, this was a six-team league with a two-round playoff, but in that pre-expansion era, no one dominated like the Canadiens in this stretch. It was, however, a pre-expansion era.

The 1980s produced two dynasties, and ranking them comes down to quality vs. quantity. We valued the former over the latter, so here are the Oilers: Five Stanley Cups, six conference titles and six first-place finishes during this ridiculous run. Wayne Gretzky was there for first four Cups; the fact that they collected a fifth after The Trade remains one of the most remarkable feats in NHL history, given the context. Imagine the post-Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls winning the NBA title with onlyScottie Pippen and Toni Kukoc.

This was a dynasty built on considerable star power -- Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr -- built by one of the most successful coaches/executives in hockey history in Glen Sather. They were on another planet offensively, leading the NHL in goals in five consecutive seasons. Would they be higher on this list without that semifinal stumble to the Calgary Flames in 1986 and that semifinal defeat at Gretzky's hands in 1989? Without question. As it stands, five Cups in a seven-year span is a remarkable achievement in a league with four playoff rounds and 21 teams. But four in a row is just a little more remarkable ...

Before 1980, the Islanders hadn't advanced past the semifinals since entering the league in 1972. Then they won four Stanley Cups in a row, an achievement that hasn't come close to being matched over the next four decades. They added a fifth conference title in five seasons in 1984, losing to the Edmonton Oilers in the Stanley Cup Final to formally pass the torch. Before that, they were 20-4 in the Final, defeating Gretzky's Oilers once.

Again, it's a quantity (Oilers) vs. quality (Islanders) debate for the peak run of the decade. One reason New York gets the nod: 19 consecutive playoff series wins between 1980 and 1984, which remains unmatched not only in NHL history but in sports history. Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin, Billy Smith, Al Arbour, Bill Torrey ... it may not have been the longest run, but it was the best dynasty in the 1980s to not feature Joan Collins.

A decade of dominance, starting with Ken Dryden's rookie run to the Conn Smythe and ending with the last of Scotty Bowman's eight years as head coach. In nine seasons, they won six Stanley Cups and six conference titles. They had seven first-place finishes and finished with better than a .600 points percentage all nine seasons. That included the best season for any team in the modern NHL: 1976-77, when Montreal went 60-8-12, good for an NHL-record 132 points and a .825 points percentage. In three straight championship seasons (1975-76 to 1977-78), the Habs went a ridiculous 177-29-34 in the regular season.

Their final Stanley Cup team featured 10 Hall of Famers, including Dryden, Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, Jacques Lemaire and Rod Langway. Their first Stanley Cup team of the run featured 11, including Frank Mahovlich and Henri Richard. They dominated in ways few teams had, beating you with offense or defense. They sold coffee makers. They were rock stars. Well, at least Lafleur was.

The Canadiens have had multiple dynasties. They even won five Cups in a row during one of them. But this spectacular roll in a post-expansion NHL, and especially those four Cups in a row, make this nine-year Montreal Canadiens run the NHL's greatest dynasty; and, probably, the greatest in North American sports history.

Heck, it took Tom Brady 18 years before getting a ring on his other hand ...
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