NHL Dynasties: Which One is No. 1

It’s easy enough to identify the great team dynasties of NHL history. Simply take any list of Stanley Cup victories since 1917 and highlight the teams that have won three or more Cups in succession. Also include teams that have won more than three Stanley Cups over a relatively short period of several years in a row, as long as the first and last years are Cup-winning years. Ten teams emerge as candidates for the title of greatest NHL dynasty of all time. They are:

1) 1919-27 Ottawa Senators (4 Cups in 8 years)

2) 1946-51 Toronto Maple Leafs (4 Cups in 5 years)

3) 1949-55 Detroit Red Wings (4 Cups in 6 years)

4) 1955-60 Montreal Canadiens (5 Stanley Cups in 5 years)

5) 1961-67 Toronto Maple Leafs (4 Cups in 6 years)

6) 1964-69 Montreal Canadiens (4 Cups in 5 years)

7) 1975-79 Montreal Canadiens (4 Cups in 4 years)

8) 1979-83 New York Islanders (4 Cups in 4 years)

9) 1983-90 Edmonton Oilers (5 Cups in 7 years)

10) 1996-08 Detroit Red Wings (4 Cups in 11 years)

Listing them is easy. Trying to decide which one is the best presents a real challenge.

Which One is the Greatest?

How do you begin to compare the Oilers of the 1980s with the Senators of the 1920s? The Oilers faced transcontinental travel and a much more grueling playoff schedule than the old Sens.

Which one of the great Leafs teams was better, the 1940’s juggernaut or the 1960s group of champions? Both of these won all of their Cups during the Original Six era, but which one of the two stands out as the undisputed best?

There’s a good chance that if you were asked to pick the greatest NHL team of all time, your answer would be a team falling within one of these ten great dynasties.

Let’s use a process of elimination. Picture the 10 aforementioned candidates in a quasi-game show contest, much like “The Weakest Link” — we keep eliminating teams until we’re left with one winner. Here we go:

No. 2 vs. No. 5

The Best-Ever Leafs Team

Clearly, winning four Stanley Cups in five straight seasons is a greater feat than winning four Cups in six years. In fact, the Leafs of 1947-51 almost became the first team to win five Cups in a row. They did win in 1947, ’48, ’49, and ’51 but were eliminated in overtime of game seven of the semi-finals in 1950 by Detroit, the eventual cup winner.

1947 - 1948 Toronto Maple Leafs Stanley cup Team Photo
1966-67 Maple Leafs (THW Archives)

After winning three Cups in a row between 1962-64, the Leafs of 1965 finished the regular season in fourth place out of six teams and were dispatched in six games in the first round by the Canadiens who were beginning a new dynasty of their own. The 1966 Leafs did not even win a playoff game so the 1967 Leafs Cup victory seems a tad detached from the three in a row between 1962 and ’64.

Leafs, 1961-62 to 1966-67, you ARE the weakest link. Goodbye.

No. 3 vs. No. 10

The Best-Ever Red Wings Team

Once again, winning four Cups in six years seems like a greater accomplishment than four Cups in 11 years. Both Wings’ dynasties had a core of four or five players that helped the team win all four Cups.

The Wings of the early 1950s had Hall-of-Famer Red Kelly on defense. The latest super-Wings have Hall-of-Famer Nicklas Lidstrom. After that, the comparisons get weaker.

All four Cup Champions of the 1950s featured the incomparable trio of Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay and Terry Sawchuk in goal. All three are enshrined Hall-of-Famers.

Marcel Pronovost Detroit Red Wings Terry Sawchuk Gordie Howe
DETROIT, MI – 1962: Marcel Pronovost #3 of the Detroit Red Wings handles the puck as goalie Terry Sawchuk #1 and Gordie Howe #9 look on circa 1962 at the Detroit Olympia in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)

Finally, although the Red Wings of late have won four Presidents’ Trophies for finishing first overall within their dynasty period, the Wings of 1950-55 finished the regular season in first place EVERY year for six years in a row. Incredible!

Red Wings, 1996-97 to 2007-08, you ARE the weakest link. Goodbye.

No. 1 vs. No. 9

Old or New?

There are similarities between the Ottawa Senators of the 1920s and the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s. Both teams dominated their respective decades, yet neither team won three Cups in a row.

Wayne Gretzky #99
UNIONDALE, NY – 1983: Wayne Gretzky #99 of the Edmonton Oilers skates with the puck during an NHL game against the New York Islanders circa 1983 at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by B Bennett/Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

Both of these great dynasties featured a slew of future Hall-of-Famers and both teams finished first overall in the league more often than not. The principal differences between the two dynasties boils down to two undeniable and deciding factors.

For most of their tenure as the league’s best, the Ottawa Senators competed against just three other NHL teams. Play against a non-NHL, western opponent was limited to one Stanley Cup series.

The Oilers played in a 21-team NHL with a parity-inducing Entry Draft for new coming players having been in place for well over a decade. Secondly, the Oilers had Gretzky. For four of its five Cups, the Edmonton Oilers featured arguably the greatest offensive player of all time.

Senators, 1919-20 to 1926-27, you ARE the weakest link. Goodbye.

No. 4 vs. No. 6

Habs of the 1950s or ‘60s?

At first glance, this is an easy one. No other team in NHL history apart for the 1955-60 Canadiens has ever won the Cup five times in a row. The Habs of the mid to late 1950s finished first overall four times out of five. They never trailed in a series and they were never pushed to a Game 7 in every one of the ten playoff series they had to take in order to win five straight Cups. Unbelievable!

The Habs Cup run from 1965 to 1969, on the other hand, was interrupted in 1967 by the Maple Leafs. These Habs finished in first place overall only three out of five times. The road to the Cup was tougher after expansion in 1967 and the playoffs were longer, but one round against the winner of the new Division was a gimme.

Canadiens, 1964-65 to 1968-69, you ARE the weakest link. Goodbye.

No. 7 vs. No. 8

Habs of the 1970s or the Islanders?

For eight straight years, only two teams won Lord Stanley’s Holy Grail. The two successive dynasties between 1975-76 and 1982-83 were remarkably similar.

If you include the first three series of 1984 during the Islanders’ “Drive for Five,” the New Yorkers won an awesome 19 playoff series in a row. Both the Montreal Canadiens, 1976-79, and the Islanders, 1980-83, won 4 straight Stanley Cups. Once again, however, two major distinctions of superiority give the edge to the Canadiens of the late ’70s.

Islanders Dynasty
New York Islanders Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy, Stanley Cup (THW Archives)

The Canadiens teams featured twice as many individual trophy winners and All-stars as the Islanders. More importantly, the Canadiens finished in first place overall in the regular season all four years of their dynasty compared to two out of four for the Isles.

Islanders, 1979-80 to 1982-83, you ARE the weakest link. Goodbye.

The Final Five

At this point, we’ve whittled our original list of 10 great NHL dynasty teams down to five. That doesn’t necessarily mean the remaining five are all better than the eliminated five. But one of the surviving five is the best. Let’s keep whittling.

No. 2 vs. No. 3

Leafs of the ‘40s or Red Wings of the early 1950s?

As previously mentioned, the Toronto Maple Leafs of 1946-51 had a chance to become the first team in NHL history to win five Cups in a row, but just missed. Nevertheless, they were the first team to win three consecutive Stanley Cups. The Red Wings also won 4 Cups between 1949-55, but it took them six years and they did not win three in a row.

Red Wings, 1949-50 to 1954-55 you ARE the weakest link. Goodbye.

No. 4 vs. No. 9

Habs of the 1950s or the Oilers of the 1980s?

This is a tough one. For five straight years, no one touched Rocket Richard and the Montreal Canadiens. In comparison, it took seven years for Gretzky and the Oilers to capture their five Stanley Cups.

Of course, the major difference between the two dynasties is the times in which they played. No matter how great it may seem that one team won five Championships in a row, one cannot overlook the fact that the competition of the “Original Six” era was very limited.

Oilers Dynasty
Wayne Gretzky (Photo by B Bennett/Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

It only took two playoff series each season to capture the prize. On the other hand, Gretzky & Messier’s Oilers had to win four playoff series and beat out 20 other teams in each of their victorious years. Plus, the Oilers’ domination in team and individual awards extended over a longer period.

Canadiens, 1955-56 to 1959-60 you ARE the weakest link. Goodbye.

No. 2 vs. No. 7

Leafs of the ‘40s or Canadiens of the 1970s?

Once again, as great as the Leafs were between 1946 and 1951, captained by the great Syl Apps and Ted Kennedy and backstopped by money-goaltender Turk Broda, their “Original Six” competition was limited to just five other teams. Unfortunately, any pre-1967 dynasty is limited in greatness by this constraint.

For the most part, Original Six teams traveled by train within a comparably small geographical area. The Canadiens of the late 1970s traveled the continent and won four Cups in a row through regular season and postseason, utter domination. No contest.

Leafs, 1946-47 to 1950-51, you ARE the weakest link. Goodbye.

No. 7 vs. No. 9

Habs of the 1970s or the Oilers of the 1980s?

This brings us to our final matchup, the two greatest dynasties in all NHL history. The distinguishing factor between the two is the degree to which each one was better than all of their opponents.

In their dynasty period, the 1975-76 to 1978-79 Montreal Canadiens finished in first place in three out of the four (Islanders finished one point ahead in 1978-79). Their winning percentage over these four years was an astronomic .786. No other dynasty in history even comes close. When these Habs won, they won everything.

They set records in 1976-77 that have yet to be surpassed with an astounding regular season record of 60-8-12 and 132 points. From Scotty Bowman behind the bench, Guy Lafleur up front and Ken Dryden in nets, this squad had future Hall-of-Famers, all-stars and award winners galore. In that period of time between 1975 and 1979, no other team could match Montreal’s total NHL domination.

Guy Lafleur
Guy Lafleur (THW Archives)

During their dynasty years, the powerful Edmonton Oilers won the regular season at a .648 pace, comparable to most of the great dynasties but not even near the winning percentage of the great Habs of the late 1970s.

Edmonton Oilers, 1983-84 to 1989-90, you ARE the weakest link. Goodbye.

In case you say that it’s difficult to compare the Montreal Canadiens four Stanley Cups in four years to the Oilers’ five Cups in seven years, we can always include the Canadiens’ Cup victory of 1973 to their ‘70’s dynasty. There, both won five Cups in seven years.

And the Winner Is…

The greatest NHL dynasty of all time was the Montreal Canadiens, 1975-76 to 1978-79. Of course, you might present a compelling argument otherwise. It will always be one of the greatest debates in hockey history.