When discussing the greatest NHL teams of all time, there are several obvious candidates. Among hockey fans who dont yet use walkers, the most fondly remembered teams are the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s and the Detroit Red Wings of the last 15 years. Fans with a more historical bent (I exclude from the characterization Iain Fyffe, who has always been partial to the Vancouver Millionnaires of the 1910s) will cite the Gordie Howe Red Wings of the 1940s and 1950s, who finished first overall in the regular season seven consecutive years, and the late 1950s Canadiens who won five consecutive Stanley Cups from 1956-1960. But if pressed, most hockey fans will agree that the Montreal Canadiens of the late 1970s, who won four Consecutive Stanley Cups and set a host of records that will never be beaten, deserve the crown.
While the 70s Canadiens won four Stanley Cups, the same as the Islanders and Oilers and one fewer than their brethren 20 years earlier, it is the degree to which they dominated the rest of the league that sticks out. From 1976 to 1978, the Canadiens regular season record was 177 Wins, 29 Losses and 34 Ties. They averaged over 129 Points per Season, over just 80 games and without the Bettman charity point; in fact, those are three of the four highest point totals ever recorded, joined only by the 131 points recorded by the 1995-96 Red Wings (over 82 games). They averaged (averaged!) a goal differential of +185 over those three seasons. Their playoff records were 12-1, 12-2, 12-3 and 12-4 during their four Stanley Cup runs. No team had been as clearly dominant before or has been since.
However, there is a fair question to ask: are we measuring those Canadiens against the same caliber of opponents that our other great teams had to face? Everyone understands that sports has changed dramatically over the last 50 years, and any notion of a head-to-head matchup between the 1956 Canadiens and the 1984 Oilers should be saved for video games and friendly arguments in pubs. The best we can do is compare teams to the competition that existed at the time. But by this measure, the Canadiens of the 1970s had a much easier task than any other elite team.
In 1967, the NHL had six teams, as had been the case for a quarter century. But the next ten years saw dramatic changes in the world of professional hockey: the NHL expanded from 6 to 12, and then to 14, 16 and 18 teams from 1967 to 1974. Meanwhile, in 1972 the World Hockey Association (WHA) was launched, and with money and fanfare, began poaching NHL talent. By 1974, there were 18 teams in the NHL and 14 in the WHA: 32 major league hockey teams in North America, where seven years earlier there had been six. To say there was a dilution in talent would not do justice to how much the level of competition eroded.
There are several ways to quantify this. One simple method is to simply look at the standard deviation of normalized goal differential. Obviously, as expansion did not distribute the level of talent fairly, the solid teams, which were Montreal, Boston, Philadelphia and Long Island, did very well, while the bottom feeders, such as the Washington Capitals, Cleveland Barons and Colorado Rockies, suffered. Here is a two year rolling average of the standard deviation of normalized goal differential, over the last 60 years:
The peak, starting around 1970 and lasting until 1978, is very visible. The only other high point is in the mid-1950s, which featured only six teams, one of which was a Chicago Black Hawks (spelled as two words at the time) team that was incredibly bad from 1951 to 1957. The post-lockout parity of the NHL can also be seen at the very right of the graph.
However, parity is not, in and of itself, a good measure of the strength of a league. For example, the parity in the American Hockey League is about the same as that in the NHL, and yet nobody would claim that the AHL is as strong a league based on this fact. For a more thorough analysis, we need to perform league equivalencies. While league equivalencies are typically used to compare the strength of different leagues, they are equally precise when comparing a league to itself over time, since there are fewer differences between, say, the NHL of 2004 and 2007 than between the NHL of 2004 and the Swedish Elitserien of that same year.
Calculating a year-on-year equivalency of the NHL to itself is fairly straightforward: just calculate how many points per unit of ice time were obtained by each player who played both seasons in the NHL, and the ratio gives you the relative league strength. By calculating a year-on-year equivalency for each pair of years, we can obtain a measure of NHL strength over time. The shape of the graph below should not surprise anyone, although its depth might:
The unit of league strength is normalized points per ice time. This means that a player who scored 80 points in the NHL of 1966-67 would have been a 93-point player by 1974-75, assuming no change in his skill set or ice time. The consolidation starting in 1980 was partly a result of contraction, as 32 teams were brought down to the 21-team NHL that persisted from 1979 to 1991, and party because of an infusion of young talent, as the years from 1979 to 1981 saw the NHL arrival of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Mike Gartner, Raymond Bourque, Paul Coffey, Al MacInnis and Larry Murphy, producing possibly more Hall of Famers in a 3-year period than any other.
Whats the bottom line? The Montreal Canadiens of the 1970s were good, but they may not have been as good as their record has led us to believe. The best regular season performance and goal differential belongs to the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings, who did everything imaginable except win the Stanley Cup; they would, however, capture it convincingly the next two seasons. In terms of overall accomplishments, and with respect to the level of talent available in the world at the time, my nod would go to the Edmonton Oilers of 1983-85, with the New York Islanders of 1980-82 not far behind. In the era of intelligent drafting and salary caps, it will likely be impossible to assemble a team that dominant. Their like will never be seen again.
Tom Awad is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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