Great reigns are rarely visible ahead of time, and can rarely be attributed to a single event. So it is with sports dynasties: many things must come together to the same place, at the same time, to produce a really great team. However, if we were to select a single date that would mark the origin of the current NHL dynasty, we would have to choose June 17th 1989, the date of the NHL’s 1989 entry draft. On this date, the Detroit Red Wings selected Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov and Vladimir Konstantinov, and planted the seeds of the most dominant team of the last 15 years.
Wikipedia offers a useful definition of a dynasty: “A sports dynasty is a team that dominates their sport or league for multiple seasons or years. Such dominance is often only realized in retrospect.” With the Red Wings capable of winning their fifth Stanley Cup of the last 12 years, the debate is alive as to whether they constitute a true dynasty or not. I believe the answer is an unambiguous yes, and will be yes even if the Wings lose the current final.
I will attempt to propose more detailed criteria that should define a dynasty:
- The team must be dominant over a period of several years
- The domination should be visible in both the regular season and playoffs
- There should be no other dynasty over the covered period
- There should be some continuity in personnel over the period of the dynasty
We can define the definition of the Red Wings dynasty as either the 1991-92 season or the 1994-95 season, depending on whether we want to insist more on regular season or playoff success. For the sake of argument, given that it was such an improved season, I will start in 1991-92 and define the dynasty as covering the 17 seasons from 1991-92 to 2008-09 inclusively.
Have the Wings been dominant in the regular season?
This is perhaps the easiest question to answer. Here are the combined standings of the NHL over the last 17 seasons, sorted by win percentage.
Team GP Pts Win % GVT
1 Detroit Red Wings 1362 1810 0.664 1429
2 New Jersey Devils 1362 1664 0.611 793
3 Minnesota North Stars / Dallas Stars 1362 1589 0.583 487
4 Quebec Nordiques / Colorado Avalanche 1362 1573 0.577 638
5 Philadelphia Flyers 1362 1553 0.570 485
6 Boston Bruins 1362 1494 0.548 118
7 St_ Louis Blues 1362 1482 0.544 212
8 Pittsburgh Penguins 1362 1482 0.544 110
9 Buffalo Sabres 1362 1477 0.542 395
10 Vancouver Canucks 1362 1465 0.538 169
11 Toronto Maple Leafs 1362 1464 0.537 22
12 Montreal Canadiens 1362 1453 0.533 71
13 Minnesota Wild 656 694 0.529 24
14 Washington Capitals 1362 1431 0.525 25
15 New York Rangers 1362 1428 0.524 40
16 Calgary Flames 1362 1403 0.515 -57
17 Nashville Predators 820 842 0.513 -151
18 Ottawa Senators 1282 1296 0.505 24
19 Anaheim Mighty Ducks 1198 1209 0.505 -185
20 Chicago Blackhawks 1362 1362 0.500 -79
21 Edmonton Oilers 1362 1344 0.493 -298
22 San Jose Sharks 1362 1343 0.493 -269
23 Winnipeg Jets / Phoenix Coyotes 1362 1341 0.492 -407
24 Hartford Whalers / Carolina Hurricanes 1362 1330 0.488 -387
25 Florida Panthers 1198 1169 0.488 -337
26 Los Angeles Kings 1362 1315 0.483 -379
27 New York Islanders 1362 1228 0.451 -556
28 Columbus Blue Jackets 656 580 0.442 -473
29 Atlanta Thrashers 738 644 0.436 -608
30 Tampa Bay Lightning 1282 1117 0.436 -856
Note: all seasons have been normalized to 82 games and 3.41 goals-per-game, to weight seasons equally.
The Wings’ dominance is even more obvious in goal differential, where they have outscored their opponents by an adjusted 1429 goals, or 84 per season. In these 17 years, they have finished among the top 3 in goal differential 14 times, and among the top 3 in the standings 13 times, including 6 Predisents’ Trophies (and a tie with Buffalo in 2007). No other team has won it more than twice over that period, and the next best team in the combined standings, New Jersey, never finished first overall. The Wings dominance has been unmatched.
Have the Wings been dominant in the playoffs?
Ironically, the Wings-as-Dynasty argument has only been alive since last year’s Stanley Cup win. As recently as 2006, the Red Wings were thought of as a “Win in the regular season, choke in the playoffs” team. This argument had at least some truth to it: in the 7 seasons between their Cup win in 1998 and the 2007 playoffs, the Red Wings won only 7 playoff series, 4 of them in 2002. During this time the Devils won 12, the Avalanche 11 and the Stars 9. However, this interim is now seen as a string of bad luck in an overarching achievement: in the 4 playoff years from 1995 to 1998, the Red Wings won 11 playoff series and 2 Stanley Cups, and in the 3 most recent seasons they’ve won 9 playoff rounds and 1 Stanley Cup. Here are the standings of the teams in the playoffs, according to the simple point system I introduced in my previous article:
Team Pf Pts
1 Detroit Red Wings 42.6
2 New Jersey Devils 33.7
3 Quebec Nordiques / Colorado Avalanche 29.8
4 Pittsburgh Penguins 26.3
5 Minnesota North Stars / Dallas Stars 24.4
6 Philadelphia Flyers 24.4
7 Buffalo Sabres 20.7
8 San Jose Sharks 19.5
9 St_ Louis Blues 18.9
10 Toronto Maple Leafs 18.4
11 Vancouver Canucks 17.9
12 New York Rangers 17.9
13 Ottawa Senators 17.8
14 Anaheim Mighty Ducks 17.6
15 Montreal Canadiens 16.5
16 Boston Bruins 15.2
17 Washington Capitals 14.4
18 Hartford Whalers / Carolina Hurricanes 13.3
19 Chicago Blackhawks 13.1
20 Edmonton Oilers 12.4
21 Calgary Flames 11.4
22 Tampa Bay Lightning 9.4
23 Los Angeles Kings 8.0
24 Winnipeg Jets / Phoenix Coyotes 6.6
25 New York Islanders 6.6
26 Florida Panthers 4.6
27 Minnesota Wild 4.3
28 Nashville Predators 3.8
29 Columbus Blue Jackets 1.0
30 Atlanta Thrashers 0.8
For those who believe that playoff hockey is a completely different sport from the regular season, note how similar these two lists are. Granted, some regular season success is necessary to even make the playoffs in order to be able to perform, but these two lists are closer than that. Regardless, Detroit dominates once again. This is true even though I decided to start measuring in 1992, during which the Red Wings would suffer the first of three consecutive first-round upsets. Start in 1995 (or 1997) and things get even uglier for the competition. The problem with being so strong is that almost any loss is an upset.
Who have been the key players?
The Red Wings story was made even better by their likable leader. By now, everybody knows the story of Stevie Y: drafted 4th overall in 1984 when the Red Wings missed on Pat Lafontaine. Named as the NHL’s then-youngest captain in 1987. Scored 155 points, a total exceeded only by Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, in 1989. After being coached by Scotty Bowman starting in 1993, learned to play defense and became a fine two-way forward. He waited 13 years to taste his first Stanley Cup championship in 1997, but eventually became the NHL’s first three-time Cup captain since Wayne Gretzky. By the end of his career, Yzerman was not only the longest-serving captain in North American sports history, but was widely considered to be one of the greatest hockey captains of all-time.
Yet the story of the Wings is far more than the story of Yzerman. The Wings only became great once the addition of Sergei Fedorov gave them, in effect, two #1 centers. Brendan Shanahan turned out to be the missing ingredient, and a trade for him in October 1996 yielded a Cup less than 8 months later. Goaltender Chris Osgood went from goat to hero to goat to hero, widely blamed for many of the playoff flops, but was the #1 goalie for the 1998 and 2008 Cup runs (and the 2009 run to the Final). Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg started as youngsters with Brett Hull as “Two kids and an old goat” in 2001, but were the leaders of the team within a few years.
It’s no coincidence, however, that I chose to start the Wings dynasty in 1991, because that was the first season of one of the greatest defensemen in NHL history. While elaborating on Lidstrom’s greatness would require another article unto itself, suffice it to say that he has played each one of the last 17 seasons for the Red Wings, was one of the team’s best players for most of them, and was the consensus choice to replace Yzerman as captain when the latter retired. As befits the player named by the Hockey News as “Best European-trained player ever in the NHL”, he was also the first European-trained captain to lead his team to the Stanley Cup, and has been the linchpin of the Red Wings dynasty more so than anyone else.
Tom Awad is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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