The 1969-70 Boston Bruins? What they’re most remembered for is captured in a single photograph (or the equivalent film snippet), showing Bobby Orr leaping through the air after scoring the Stanley Cup-winning goal in Game 4 of the Finals against St. Louis.
The 2000-01 Colorado Avalanche? It’s the sequence of captain Joe Sakic handing off the Stanley Cup to Ray Bourque, whose two decades of anticipation show on his face as — with Denver Post photgrapher John Leyba and others shooting away — he holds and thrusts it aloft.
That, plus homage to teams’ dynastic runs, are what struck me when looking over the list of the single-season “Top 20 Greatest NHL Teams” selected in fan voting in conjunction with the league’s 100th anniversary. It’s a marketing contrivance, yet fun. The first round cut the field from the NHL’s 96 Stanley Cup championship teams to 50, the second round got it down to 20 and the subsequent voting eventually will select the “Greatest NHL team.”
In those two cases, an iconic, summing-it-up moment is so memorable and powerful.
The final 20 is a modern-era list. That Bruins team is the farthest back, from the third season of the post-“Original Six” era. That shut out any teams from the six-team league, or even the earlier seasons when the NHL included as many as 10 franchises (that’s why “Original Six” calls for quotation marks).
The exclusion of the 1951-52 Red Wings with Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay, and the 1955-56 Canadiens with Jean Beliveau and Rocket Richard, is like leaving the 1927 Yankees off a list of greatest World Series champions, whether out of ignorance or dismissal of the era because its best player, Babe Ruth, was a fat slob. But that doesn’t mean the voting is “wrong,” and in this 140-character, excitement-over-who-skated-on-the-second-line-at-practice-this-morning era, homage to a hockey team from 47 years ago even is a bit surprising.
The list included four Oilers teams, plus three apiece from the Canadiens and Islanders in spans brief enough to be considered dynastic runs. The Penguins’ three teams among the 20 came with a 13-year gap between the second and third.
The inclusion of the Bob Hartley-coached 2000-01 Avalanche and Red Wings (2001-02) from consecutive seasons is most interesting and provocative here. The 1997-98 Red Wings also are on the list.
It all triggers thoughts of what might have been. What if the Avalanche had won at least one more championship in its first decade in Denver? Think of the cast, which evolved but featured Patrick Roy, Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk, Chris Drury, Alex Tanguay, Adam Foote, Rob Blake, Sandis Ozolinsh, Adam Deadmarsh, Claude Lemieux, Valeri Kamensky and … more.
I’m not saying the 1995-96 team would have been made the list as a case of recognizing dominance over a period of time. I’m thinking more of the three times the Avalanche lost in the Western Conference finals in seven games — against the Dallas Stars in 1999 and 2000, and the Red Wings in 2002. In 1999 and 2002, the Avalanche let 3-2 series leads get away. Granted, all three of those Game 7s were on the road, but those teams were capable of rising to the challenge … but didn’t. The blinkered front-office perception that the Avalanche, under Hartley, didn’t take full advantage of that talent it had in that window, greatly contributed to his ridiculously premature firing during the 2002-03 season. The truth is, it was a glorious era, especially viewed in the context of the franchise’s current struggles. It’s just that it could have been better.
The 2000-01 Avalanche didn’t have to go through the Red Wings because the Kings shocked Detroit in the first round. But Colorado came back from a 3-2 series deficit in the Finals against the Devils. Game 6 in New Jersey was one of Roy’s defining nights, when he kept the outplayed Avalanche in it early. Then Tanguay’s two-goal Game 7 in the Pepsi Center gave him a permanent spot of honor in Avalanche lore.
It was the pre-cap era, and keeping that kind of a roster together turned out to be problematic, leading to Foote’s and Forsberg’s departures after the 2004-05 dark season. A case can be made that the Avalanche winning Denver’s first major-league championship in 1996 was a thrill that can’t be duplicated, but the 2001 team was better, entrenched in Denver by then and more a part of Colorado’s sporting landscape.
TOP 20 GREATEST NHL TEAMS
1969-70 Boston Bruins
1975-76 Montreal Canadiens
1976-77 Montreal Canadiens
1977-78 Montreal Canadiens
1979-80 New York Islanders
1981-82 New York Islanders
1982-83 New York Islanders
1983-84 Edmonton Oilers
1984-85 Edmonton Oilers
1986-87 Edmonton Oilers
1987-88 Edmonton Oilers
1988-89 Calgary Flames
1990-91 Pittsburgh Penguins
1991-92 Pittsburgh Penguins
1993-94 New York Rangers
1997-98 Detroit Red Wings
2000-01 Colorado Avalanche
2001-02 Detroit Red Wings
2009-10 Chicago Blackhawks
2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins