If you've read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, you'll know that we've defined the Double as the feat of winning both the regular season championship and postseason (Stanley Cup) title in the same year. It's a great accomplishment that requires both regular season and playoff success, and as such, each part of the Double should be respected in its own right. In this third and final part of the series, we'll look at NHL results since the Great Expansion.
You might think that suddenly doubling the number of teams in the NHL, as they did in 1967, would make the Double a more difficult feat to accomplish. In the Original Six era, the Double was won 56% of the time. With twice as many teams, surely this rate would decrease. However, in the first six seasons after expansion, the Double was taken four times: by Montreal in 1968, 1969, and 1973, and by the Bruins in 1972. The reasons for this are clear. The six expansion teams were assigned to the Western Division, with the established teams in the Eastern Division. Each division had its own playoffs, and the respective division champions would meet for the Stanley Cup. This guaranteed that there would be an expansion team in the Cup final every year, so it's hardly surprising that Doubles would continue at a high rate until some of the new teams caught up to the Original Six in caliber.
The first such team to do so was the Flyers, of course, who took two Stanley Cup titles but finished behind Boston and Montreal in those years, denying them the Double. After that brief two season respite from Doubles, we started seeing them again with great regularity. Montreal again did the Double in 1976, 1977, and 1978, the Islanders won it in 1981 and 1982, followed by the Oilers in 1984 and 1987, and the Flames finished it out in 1989. So in the 22 seasons following expansion, the league had 12 Doubles, a rate of 55%, which matches the Original Six era as exactly as possible given the number of seasons we're working with.
The frequent Doubling in this time period, despite the ever-increasing number of teams, was the result of the great competitive imbalance that existed in the league, which carried over from the Original Six and was compounded by expansion. It never really got any better in the years we're looking at, either. As late as 1988-89, we had two teams (Calgary and Montreal) who had at least 115 points, and then only two others managed to exceed 90 points (Washington with 92 and Los Angeles with 91). Six teams had 66 points or fewer. The NHL was a league of strong sides and also-rans.
"Double" winners, 1968-1989
Season League winner Stanley Cup winner
1968 Montreal Canadiens Montreal Canadiens
1969 Montreal Canadiens Montreal Canadiens
1970 Chicago Blackhawks Boston Bruins
1971 Boston Bruins Montreal Canadiens
1972 Boston Bruins Boston Bruins
1973 Montreal Canadiens Montreal Canadiens
1974 Boston Bruins Philadelphia Flyers
1975 Montreal Canadiens Philadelphia Flyers
1976 Montreal Canadiens Montreal Canadiens
1977 Montreal Canadiens Montreal Canadiens
1978 Montreal Canadiens Montreal Canadiens
1979 New York Islanders Montreal Canadiens
1980 Philadelphia Flyers New York Islanders
1981 New York Islanders New York Islanders
1982 New York Islanders New York Islanders
1983 Boston Bruins New York Islanders
1984 Edmonton Oilers Edmonton Oilers
1985 Philadelphia Flyers Edmonton Oilers
1986 Edmonton Oilers Montreal Canadiens
1987 Edmonton Oilers Edmonton Oilers
1988 Calgary Flames Edmonton Oilers
1989 Calgary Flames Calgary Flames
In this time period at least, it would seem the idea that some teams are "playoff teams" is foolish, since the best regular season teams regularly won the postseason championship as well. If you wanted to predict who would win the Stanley Cup, all you had to do was ask "Who finished first overall?"
That all changed starting around 1990. The league became more and more competitive, overcoming the addition of expansion team after expansion team to reach an unprecedented level of parity. This, combined with the sheer numbers of teams that now existed, made winning the Double more difficult than ever. In the last 22 seasons, the Double has been won only five times (23%): the Rangers in 1994, the Stars in 1999, Colorado in 2001, and the Red Wings in 2002 and 2008. No one has even come close to a Double-Double; no Double winner has been able to repeat as either regular season champ or postseason titleist, much less both:
"Double" winners, 1990-2011
Season League winner Stanley Cup winner
1990 Boston Bruins Edmonton Oilers
1991 Chicago Blackhawks Pittsburgh Penguins
1992 New York Rangers Pittsburgh Penguins
1993 Pittsburgh Penguins Montreal Canadiens
1994 New York Rangers New York Rangers
1995 Detroit Red Wings New Jersey Devils
1996 Detroit Red Wings Colorado Avalanche
1997 Colorado Avalanche Detroit Red Wings
1998 Dallas Stars Detroit Red Wings
1999 Dallas Stars Dallas Stars
2000 St. Louis Blues New Jersey Devils
2001 Colorado Avalanche Colorado Avalanche
2002 Detroit Red Wings Detroit Red Wings
2003 Ottawa Senators New Jersey Devils
2004 Detroit Red Wings Tampa Bay Lightning
2005 Rochester Americans Philadelphia Phantoms
2006 Detroit Red Wings Carolina Hurricanes
2007 Ottawa Senators Anaheim Ducks
2008 Detroit Red Wings Detroit Red Wings
2009 San Jose Sharks Pittsburgh Penguins
2010 Washington Capitals Chicago Blackhawks
2011 Vancouver Canucks Boston Bruins
Note that for the 2005 season, the AHL and its Calder Cup championship have been substituted for the NHL and its Stanley Cup, since the AHL was the highest league operating in North America that season.
It is this era that really popularized the concept of a "playoff team", Original Six Maple Leafs notwithstanding. Detroit won the Stanley Cup in both 1997 and 1998 without having finished with the best record in the NHL in either season. This could mean that they were a team built for the postseason, if you ignore the fact that they finished first in 1995 and 1996, showing they were a great regular season team as well. The Penguins won Cup in 1991 and 1992 without being great in the first 80 games; then, they finished first overall in 1993 to show they were just a great team, period. They reversed the process of the Red Wings, implying that it wasn't just a matter of learning what it takes to win in the regular season before you can take the Cup.
The New Jersey Devils are, of course, the poster boys of playoff teams. I've written about their playoff success quite extensively before, and won't repeat it here. Suffice it to say that the idea that the Devils were only a good regular season teamdialing it up "when it mattered most"is misguided; they never finished first, but they were always among the best few teams in the NHL, finishing second overall in 1994, 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2001. Heck, they even led the league in goals scored in 2001, and were second in goals a couple of other times, belying their defense-only reputation.
The reason the Double isn't won often anymore is that the league has a great deal of parity. There are no bad teams in the playoffs anymore, waiting to get picked off by far superior opponents. Each round of the playoffs is a battle, making it less and less likely that the President's Trophy winner will be able to overcome the odds and claim the Stanley Cup. When it does occur, such an accomplishment should be celebrated. But since it's rare, let's heap some praise on the regular season champs as well, regardless of whether they win the Cup (whose winner already receives plenty of accolades). They played hard for your enjoyment for 82 games, and demonstrated their superiority over a grueling six-month schedule. They earned your respect. Make sure you give it to them.