Repeat after the Chicago Blackhawks: Winning back-to-back Stanley Cups is hard. Forging consistent success each spring in the NHL is even harder.
It has been 16 years since a team won successive league championships, and 30 since the passing of the last true dynastic torch -- from the New York Islanders to the Edmonton Oilers. Since the end of Edmonton's run in 1991, there have been only two repeat champions: the Pittsburgh Penguins (1991, '92) and the Detroit Red Wings (1997, '98). Only six teams have even managed a return trip to the Cup final: the Penguins and Wings also did it in 2008 and '09, the Dallas Stars (1999, 2000), and the New Jersey Devils (2000, '01)
Now that Chicago has been eliminated by Los Angeles in a marvelous seven-game Western Conference Final series, the annual rotation of champions will continue. It's clear that with so many factors and influences at play -- the vicissitudes of drafting and developing talent, the easing of free agency rules, the salary cap, and the long, punishing regular and postseason schedules -- it is almost impossible for a defending Stanley Cup-winner to remain healthy and intact and overcome the league's parity for very long. So we may have to revisit the very definition of "dynasty" when talk turns to where the best teams of the past two decades rank in the pantheon of overall excellence.
In the days of the six-team NHL, good clubs were almost assured a spot in the playoffs, which were dramatically shorter than they are now. In 1952, the Red Wings rolled through a two-round, eight-game postseason without a loss. Sandwiched between Toronto's three-peats in 1947-49 and 1962-64, Montreal won a record five Cups in a row from 1956 to 1960. But those Canadiens forged hockey's longest-running dynasty before the NHL Draft began in 1963. Until that year, teams had regional rights to players, so the rich Montreal and Toronto markets in particular could flood those two franchises with top young talent.
The Islanders are still the last team to win as many as three Cups in a row since the start of the draft and the league's 1967 expansion. Certainly, the NHL was blessed -- or cursed, depending on your perspective -- during that time to have three bona fide dynasties pass in procession: the Canadiens won four straight from 1976 to 1979; the Isles took the next four from 1980 to 1983; and the Oilers captured four of the next five (including a pair of two-peats) and five of the next seven.
The NHL's most recent run of mini-dynasties could probably include Bobby Orr's Boston Bruins, who won the Cup in 1970 and 1972 and reached the 1974 final, and the Philadelphia Flyers, who bullied their way to championships in 1974 and 1975 before having their three-peat denied by Montreal. But now, the Blackhawks' two Cups in four years and near-return to the final this year may qualify. So might the New Jersey Devils' three Cups and five finals appearances since 1995, the most recent in 2012. If the Kings win their second Cup since 2012, they will surely enter the discussion.
In some respects, Detroit's current run of 23 straight seasons of making the playoffs, with four Cups during that streak, is a sort of dynasty in itself as the parameters for winning big and winning consistently have changed for good.
"The salary cap makes it harder to keep players," says Red Wings GM Ken Holland. "No team is an expansion team today. The pipeline to the international players in our game is the same for every team. It's just more difficult. What you saw with teams winning four in a row, five out of six, whatever, I really don't think that will ever happen again. That was another time."
Since the 1967 expansion, the Canadiens have won successive titles while the NHL had only 18 teams instead of its current 30. The Islanders and Oilers played in 21-team leagues where it was still easier to amass a concentration of topflight talent. The greatest players of those three dynasties helped define their eras. The Habs, Isles and Oilers had a combined 19 future Hall-of-Famers on their rosters, an average of more than six per team. What franchise can boast six these days?
When Don Cherry's Bruins drew the now-infamous too-many-men penalty in the 1979 playoffs, the Canadiens tied the game with six future Hall-of-Famers on the ice (Ken Dryden, Larry Robinson, Guy Lapointe, Steve Shutt, Jacques Lemaire and Guy Lafleur, whose goal tied the game). Without the financial pressures that teams face today, the Canadiens were able to keep those stars for most, if not all, of their careers. And the grind of repeating?
"You never get tired of winning Cups," said Larry Robinson, the superstar defenseman who won six with Montreal, including four straight from 1976-79. "But there's also something about sharing that with the guy next to you and saying, 'Did it again.' You each know what they other's been through."
No pleasure cruise
The mileage that is put on the legs of the game's best players is greater now that they must battle through an 82-game regular season followed by four high-intensity best-of-seven rounds in order to win the championship. Niklas Lidstrom, Detroit's future Hall-of-Fame defenseman, played in 263 playoff games, more than three additional full seasons. Those were high-shift games that often lasted beyond 60 minutes, the kind that take their toll. By way of comparison, the Canadiens of the late '70s were blessed with years where the first round was a best-of-three; the Islanders and Oilers of the '80s, a best-of-five.
The physical wear and tear on the Islanders, plus Edmonton's stockpile of young otherworldly talent, ultimately ended New York's run. But the passing of the torch, if you will -- one stitch and ace bandage at a time -- from one dynasty to the next, began a year earlier. That spark was passed on the night of May 17, 1983 when the Isles completed their sweep of the Oilers to capture their fourth straight title. Gretzky and teammate Kevin Lowe wandered past New York's dressing room expecting to see dancing, celebrating and maybe a few cartwheels. Instead they saw players taped and bandaged, nursing their wounds and looking much more solemn than the Oilers figured they would be. And they understood.
"Winning is a state of mind," says Glenn Anderson, who won five titles with Edmonton and later a sixth with the New York Rangers in 1994. "Once you have it, once you know what it takes to achieve your goal, it stays with you. It's almost that secret recipe you don't want to share."
Chemistry counts and acquisitions made during the offseason and in mid-season have to fit perfectly. The Islanders made one such deal by acquiring center Butch Goring trom Los Angeles with just 12 games left in the 1979-80 regular season. Goring proved to be the last piece of a dynastic puzzle. After a devastating third-round loss in six games to the archrival Rangers the year before, the Islanders did not lose again in the postseason for 19 consecutive series, a record that remains unassailable in North American pro sports. Even the NBA's Boston Celtics, who won eight straight championships between 1959 and 1966, played in only two playoff series each year until their final title in 1966, when they had to win three. Add to that an opening-round series win the following year, and the Celtics managed to run off 18 in a row.
Goring and his teammates remain proud and protective of their record. "In one way, I hope nobody touches it," he says. "Over time everybody breaks records some time. Five straight Cup finals. Nineteen series. That's what we were most proud of."
Thanks in large part to parity, sweeps have become less common and seven-game series more frequent. Between 1965 and 1987, only one Cup final went the distance, as Montreal defeated Chicago in 1971. Between 1995 and 1998, the NHL saw four straight sweeps for the title. Since the most recent pair of expansion teams, Columbus and Minnesota, joined the league in 2000, other newer franchises have become more competitive. A total of 16 teams, more than half the league, have reached the final and all but two of those series have gone at least six games. There hasn't been a final sweep in the salary cap era, which began with the 2005-06 season.
Naturally, the longer a series goes, the more likely it becomes that a favorite will suffer the consequences of a bad break. The dreaded bounce that the Islanders avoided for 19 straight series famously bit the Oilers in 1986, when defenseman Steve Smith tried to fire a breakout pass from the side of his net during Game 7 against arch-rival Calgary in the second round. Instead, the puck banked off the back of his own goalie's skate and slid into Edmonton's net, giving the Flames what turned out to be the game-winning goal.
The Oilers had won two straight titles before that disaster and would win two in a row after it, but their drive for five was rendered impossible. Two years later, Gretzky was gone in a trade to Los Angeles. The economics of stardom in Edmonton's small market were taking over and, one by one, owner Peter Pocklington shuttled his assets elsewhere. Most eventually ended up with the deep-pocketed Rangers: Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Anderson, Lowe, Esa Tikkanen, and Gretzky. Somehow in the middle of the bloodletting, Edmonton won a fifth title in 1990, with a determined Messier leading the way. But the breakup of the dynasty left a city to ponder what might have been.
"That's the thing that gets me," says Mike Krushelnyski, a forward on three of the Oilers' Cup-winning teams. "We could have rattled off four or five more."
So which four- or four-in-five-peat was most impressive? Keep the debate warm with the Canadiens, Islanders and Oilers, because it could be a very long time before a new team like them joins the discussion. Make what you will of the recent Red Wings and Devils, and maybe even the Blackhawks and Kings.