Hockey History Repeating? Do The Penguins And Red Wings Compare To The 1980s’ Oilers And Islanders?

Edmonton Oilers' Wayne Gretzky and New York Islanders Denis Potvin (5) jostle for a loose puck. {LI Phil - Flickr}
Edmonton Oilers’ Wayne Gretzky and New York Islanders Denis Potvin (5) jostle for a loose puck. {LI Phil – Flickr}

Christopher Ralph is a staff columnist at THW.

As I watch the conference finals and as much as I want to see a Penguins – Blackhawks final, I am facing the inevitable – we are likely going to see a rematch of last year’s Stanley Cup Finals – Detroit versus Pittsburgh.

In today’s NHL, in which parity is running rampant, salary cap straddled teams have only remote opportunities to build, let alone maintain a dynasty. This makes the accomplishments of GM Ken Holland and the rest of the Detroit Red Wings management, coaching and scouting staff all the more impressive – to keep a team so consistently Cup competitive.

I’m taken back a quarter of a century, when I was just a young hockey fan and emerging hockey fanatic when, in at least my opinion, the changing of the guard was taking place between the two last true dynasties in the NHL.

In the 1982-83 season, the New York Islanders completed a four year reign of the Holy Grail, defeating a young and talented Edmonton Oilers team lead by a 21-year-old Wayne Gretzky. (Prior to the super streak by the Islanders, the Montreal Canadiens had hoisted Lord Stanley’s up four years consecutively as well.) The following season, spanning 1983-84, the young and super-talented Oilers would not be denied. Edmonton defeated the veteran Islander squad in 5 games, not quite achieving the sweep which had done onto them the previous year, denying the Islanders a chance to tie the immortal streak of 5 consecutive Cup wins by the Canadiens from 1956 to 1960. Gretzky and the Oilers had learned and gained experience from the best, and then defeated the best in an obvious passing of the torch and changing of the guard.

No matter how remote and loose the following comparison might be, I cannot stop myself from comparing the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings to the aforementioned 1980’s editions of the Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders, respectively. Read on before condemning me as a borderline hallucinogenic optimistic hockey writer, and remember I did state my comparison is a fairly “loose” one!

First off, how do the current day Detroit Red Wings stack up against the early to mid eighties’ New York Islanders? Before we do that, readers should take a look at fellow THW writer, Greg Caggiano’s recent discovery of a family connection with the historic Islander team. And now back to the analysis:

  • While Pavel Datsyuk’s and Henrik Zetterberg’s are somewhat different than that of the Islanders’ dynamic duo of Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier, they are and were the driving forces, especially offensively, of their respective teams. Check out this tribute to Bossy video – one of the greatest to ever play the game. httpv://
  • Phenomenom blueliners Denis Potvin and Niklas Lidstrom draw similarities given their superior two-way play that is unparalleled to all but a few of the game’s best defenseman ever.
  • Take a look behind the masks with Chris “Os-Good As It Gets” Osgood and Battlin’ Billy Smith. I think it is more than a stretch to say Osgood compares to Smith. The latter is known as one of the greatest playoff clutch goalies of all time. To his credit though, Osgood is a battler himself. Constantly considered the weakest link of the Red Wings, he more often than not rises to the occassion the greater the importance of the game. A big surprise is the notorious Billy Smith failed to make this Top 10 Goalies (Not Girls) Gone Wild video, but “Ozzie” was featured with St. Patrick Roy as numero uno!
  • Bob Bourne and Daniel Cleary? Not such a stretch as both are respectable scorers in the regular season, while raising their production in the postseason. Bourne actually led all scorers with 28 points during the 1983 Cup run. It is Cleary’s energetic and gritty play that make him an even more valuable contributor to the Wings though.
  • Although different positions, Marian Hossa’ play as a two-way threat is reminiscent of now Devils’ coach, Brent Sutter.
  • Watch Johan “The Mule” Franzen, and John Tonelli’s exploits come to mind.
  • Although Tomas Holmstrom provides an immovable presence in the crease in the offensive zone, Jiri Hudler, Valtteri Filppula and Mikael Samelsson do not exactly compare to the physical presence of Bob Nystrom, Clark Gillies and Duane Sutter. However, in the post-lockout era of the NHL, with the cutting down on the clutching and grabbing, the previously mentioned speedy forwards of the Red Wings add to their dominance in today’s NHL.
  • Going back to the blueline, more similarities can be found: Brian Rafalski and Tomas Jonsson, Niklas Kronwall and Stefan Persson, Brad Stuart and Ken Morrow.
  • A “Butch” Goring equivalent was a tough task, but Johan Franzen gets a second mention as you watch the following two videos:
YouTube player
YouTube player


Convinced yet? Or…have you come to the conclusion I am more delusional than when you started reading? Onwards and upwards, how do the current day Pittsburgh Penguins stack up against the formidable Edmonton Oilers of the mid to late 1980s?

  • Choose who resembles who as you wish, but Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin are the Penguins’ version of Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier. “99” and “Mess” are obviously legends of the game and two of the greatest of all time. SC87 and “Geno”, however, are both in the top 3 of all players in the NHL today. Amazingly, they are 21 and 22 years old, respectively. “99” and “Mess” were both 22 years old in that 1983-84  first Cup win for the Oilers.
  • While no Paul Coffey, Sergei Gonchar is the closest the Penguins have as an equivalent, and is an impressive offensive catalyst for the club in his own right. Second only to the great Bobby Orr athe greatest of offensive defensemen the hockey world as ever seen, check out this tribute video of Coffey: httpv://
  • While Marc-Andre Fleury has a long ways to go to match Grant Fuhr’s illustrious careers, like Fuhr, Fleury has the knack for the spectacular save at clutch moments in key games. Again, like Fuhr, Fleury could let in maybe four goals in a game, but make a key save to preserve his team’s win in a shootout game.
  • Although not up to Glenn Anderson’s standards,  Chris Kunitz is Pittsburgh’s answer to the explosive skating former Oiler. Kunitz did manage to notch his goal of the playoffs tonight and the Penguins will count on him for even more going forward, as I mentioned previously in my Top 10 Key Players In Hockey’s Version Of The Final Four article.
  • On the blueline, Kris Letang does not really have an Oiler equivalent in his style of play, but he adds the offense that defensemen such as Kevin Lowe, Charlie Huddy and the Randy “The Doctor” Gregg provided. Phillippe Boucher, when healthy, I liken to Kevin Lowe, with more offensive potential. Brooks Orpik’s physical defensive game reminds one of Lee Fogolin, former Oiler captain.
  • Jordan Staal’s impressive two-way game can be compared favourable to Kenny “The Rat” Linsemen, although the latter had a more “dirty” player reputation than Staal ever will.
  • Unfortunately for the Penguins they do not come close to having a comparable winger to former Oiler great Jari Kurri. Last year they had Marian Hossa, who one could liken to Kurri, but this season he skates behind enemy lines in Motown. The Penguins do have some depth on the wings and are getting contributions from the likes of a  rejuvenated Billy Guerin, Miro Satan, Ruslan Fedotenko, amongst others.
  • Like the Oilers’ key role players Pat Hughes and Dave Hunter, the Penguins also get great ice time out of guys like “Mad” Max Talbot and Matt Cooke.

Even with the above analysis and comparisons, in this salary cap world, both the Red Wings and Penguins are hard pressed to match up to the dynamic dynasties of the Islanders and Oilers of the 1980s. Because of the same salary cap and resulting parody in today’s NHL, Detroit and Pittsburgh might be the closest thing we see to dynasties we may have the opportunity to witness in the foreseeable future.

28 thoughts on “Hockey History Repeating? Do The Penguins And Red Wings Compare To The 1980s’ Oilers And Islanders?”

  1. down 3-2 now in games, I understand that the odds are roughly 3-1 against Pens winning it all in game 7, their only option….

    the Oilers analogy is looking a bit weaker by the day :

    Detroit may even be the new Canadiens, solid top to bottom and perpetual contenders

  2. True enough, Dave – this has turned into one helluva series in its own right!!!

    With snow in Calgary this morning – yes, snow in June!, I’m more than ready to get the pivotal game 5 underway.

  3. I hear Dave W!

    I was thinking the same thing last night when Justin Abdelkader scored that 1 on 3 goal!

    The Wings look a lot more like the 80s Isles than the Pens look like the 80s Oilers. Although a couple more bounces their way versus Detroit’s horseshoe up the a$$ like luck and the Penguins could have easily had a split coming out of Mo-town.

    Now it’s 2 must win games in Pittsburgh. Easier said than done against the “Os-good As It Gets” Red WIngs!

  4. maybe now that Pens are down 2-0, this discussion has to be recast:
    to date, Penguins have won zero Cups, and the RedWings, should they win this season, will be on their 5th Cup in 12 seasons, a pace similar to the Canadiens from the mid-1960s to late 1970s of one every 2nd season..

    a neglected feature in last seaso was a photo gallery of “very good teams that never won”, including the recent 2000s Senators and all their 100-pt years but no Cups, but also reaching back to the 1970s Rangers of Ratelle-Gilbert, the late ’70s Cherry Bruins, the ’90s Flyers of the Lindros era etc etc.

    Who says 2 superstars make a dynasty? maybe these Penguins will be the NHL’s Bills or Braves, with less to show than they seem to merit .

    and Detroit teams could keep on winning, Canadiens or Celtics-like…

  5. I hear ya Dave & Bruce!

    I think you can say the same for pretty much any sport for a team from this generation going back in time and taking on past great teams. Rather than a comparison I guess it may be more appropriate to say the Pens & Wings are kind of “analagous“ to or resemble 80s Oil & Isles.

    Dave W: On the Bossy note, you are bang on!!! It`s almost a shame a player of that class failed to win a Hart, but that`s the way it is. He is one of my favorites of all time and maybe the fact his accomplishments are somewhat overshadowed makes him more appealing to me.

    Thanks for the comments!

  6. on that note: here is another ’80s Islanders topic — Mike Bossy, victim of his era? Given Bossy’s stupendous stats (50 goals in 50 games, 4 straight Cups, etc.), in any era but the Gretzky ’80s, would Bossy not have one at least one MVP /scoring championship to his credit, not to mention more general renown? What a player!

  7. I asked this question a year ago, comparing RedWings to the ’80s dynasty Islanders, and Duhatchek of the Globe&Mail replied: Given the improvements in training, coaching, nutrition, fitness and overall professionalism, today”s Wings would cream the old Islanders, were the latter to travel in a time-machine to 2009. …

    • Thanks for coming by the site and taking time to comment. I think you are exactly right. Even today’s Atlanta Thrashers would probably whip the 1950s Canadiens, arguably the greatest team ever. That’s the evolution of sport.
      That being said, I loved watching that Islanders club, a perfect mix of skill and grit – much like Detroit.

  8. And so we have arrived to Penguins VS Wings Version 2.0…will it be the Wings schooling the young Pens yet again, or have SC87 & Malkin “grown” enough in a year to overcome the vets?

  9. Fantastic comments Andy! And I’ll gladly take the 2 for mangling penalty as called without whining…heheh

    Well formulated comments though – One thing salary caps cannot accomplish though – how franchises are run…You can do all you want to level the playing field but with franchises run like Detroit as opposed to say Atlanta, teams will never be truly equal.

  10. “Because of the same salary cap and resulting parody in today’s NHL, Detroit and Pittsburgh might be the closest thing we see to dynasties we may have the opportunity to witness in the foreseeable future.”

    2 minutes for mangling the English language in that sentence, lol. Other than that, fine article. I have the same feeling regarding this SCF rematch. The one significant difference would be the fact that Jari Kurri, to use your comparison, did not sign with the Isles in the offseason to get his chance at the chalice. I still believe that the addition of Hossa was a significant enough gain for Detroit, and loss for Pittsburgh, to keep history from repeating itself this year. That is, of course, contigent on the health of Datsyuk and Lidstrom.

    Despite the best efforts of Gary Bettman, OK Hockey, and Jim Balsillie to demean this great sport and league to the point of parody, they are still relatively unable to do so. NHL discipline system, parody for sure. NHL scheduling, particularly the asinine nine days off, 2 sets of back to back games in the SCF, all to please NBC, parody to the nth degree. Parity refers to an attempt to level the playing field for all participants in a given endeavour, such as competitors in a sports league. The NHL salary cap, while providing some minor moments of parody, (i.e. Red Wings signing until they will be 45 to lower their cap hit, or Brian Burke believing he can create a winner in Toronto) was chiefly designed to bring parity to the league.

  11. Robert: Here’s the numbers, taken from this great post by “The Forechecker”

    Christopher or Chris is fine – I’ve been called much worse!
    Travel is quite the advantage for the east teams. After the long haul of the regular season, travel has to take its toll. Any advantage a team can get going deep in the playoffs has to be taken into account. The significance is obviously unknown. From those #s, Pens have slight advantage over Wings, but I wonder if it’s enough to make a big impact in this case.

    If it were, Sharks Vs Caps in the finals, then we’d likely see some affect.

  12. For any team in this day and age of hockey to win 4 / 5 cups in a row would be way harder than back in the 80s . Back then no cap to worry about not that it takes anything away from that feat .

    I was taken back when you posted the miles the Sharks travelled i would have thought the Wings would have had the most just because of living in the east and most live out west .

    Can you post where the numbers are i love that kind of thing and really want to see how easy the teams in the east have it my guess would be top east team would be 20,000 max .

    So Chris or Christopher what ever you pefer to be called do you see travel as advantage for the east teams ? For the playoffs it must be a really big factor .
    If Detroit and Pitt meet you know the 7 games with the Ducks will have some effect . Were Pitt had to go what 500 miles round trip Det 5000 give or take

  13. Great reply Wesley!
    I agree with most of what you have to say, with one exception. While Wings schedule may not be so great as some Eastern conference teams, franchises such as Vancouver and Calgary . Actually just found some #s: San Jose Sharks, 1st with 56,111 miles travelled, followed by the Calgary Flames with 52,941 and Dallas Stars 51,541. Wings come in a with a mere 39,642 miles punched!

  14. Sorry Chris,
    I meant fourteen years, not twelve. Also, all need to realize that every playoff year since the Cup run of 2002, the team to knock the Red Wings out of the playoffs has eventually represented the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals. 2003 Ducks, 2004 Flames, 2006 Oilers & 2007 Ducks. Just another tidbit…
    Wesley Slingerland
    Cape Cod Massachusetts

  15. Hi Chris,
    Great article. When comparing the Red Wings to the Isles and Oilers of the 1980’s, I have to say the Red Wings are by far the stronger franchise. Going back 12 years, the Detroit Red Wings have reached the Western Conference Finals 8 times, losing only twice (1996 & 2007). They have reached the Finals 6 times, losing only in 1995 to the New Jersey Devils (which still hurts to this day!). Of course, all of this is assuming that the Wings will close out Chicago & bring the Penguins back to earth.
    Also, it has to be acknowledged that the Red Wings high brass did all of this in a much more competitive league through remarkable scouting & drafts. Then came the ridiculous salary cap that was to even the playing field & all the rule changes to create a more fan friendly, higher scoring game. The front office, coaches & players adapted like no other.
    Finally, please remember that the Detroit Red Wings are one of only two Western Conference teams located in the Eastern Standard Time Zone (Columbus being the second). This creates an unfair schedule that requires the Red Wings to travel much farther, more often than any other team in the league. How they avoid serious jet-lag is a statement of their team. Try playing in the mountains of Denver as often as the Red Wings have over the past 11 years!
    So many people say they are so tired of the Red Wing’s success. They need to remember all the obstacles that these Champions face every year. They are the picture of professionalism that all should admire, not scold.
    Sorry for not mentioning the Penguins, but they have a long way to go and many dues to pay before they can share in this comparison.
    Wesley Slingerland
    Cape Cod Massachusetts

  16. Hey MetalChick: I think I qualified throughout the article that the Wings & Pens are NOT the 80s Oil or Isles and have a long way to go to match either’s past heroics.

    I think it is a valid comparison though in today’s NHL, giving the economic climate of the game and the salary ca structure. My main point is, giving all of today’s obstacles, we may never see a true dynasty like these teams of the past, especially one that won 19 series in a row as you mentioned. Like youself, I have great memories of the 80s Isles with Bossy at the forefront, along with Potvin, Trottier, Sutter, Gillies, Nystrom, Goring, et al! Those were the days, but I’m also liking what I see from franchises of today, like the Pens, Caps, Hawks, and of course the Wings.

  17. LOL- jumping the gun much? They do not deserve to be compared to the 80s Islanders or Oilers. Let the Pens win something first, sheesh… and then win again and again- THEN maybe youll be on to something there. And while we are at it, lets let the Red Wings win 19 playoff series in a row before they are compared to the greatest dynasty in sports history. :)

  18. Thanks JJ!

    The Blackhawks are definitely a team that came to mind in writing this as well, with a fantastic foundation of great young talent.
    *Toews – Messier
    *Kane – “99” mini or Jr.
    *While no Coffey comparison really, Seabrook & Keith are maybe the best “D” pairing in the league, or at least will be soon enough.

    Dale Tallon and crew simply have some challenges ahead with respect to salary cap. Huet a very expensive #2 or do you let the Bulin Wall go in the near future? Then there’s Campbell’s contract – Ouch!!

  19. Great Post! Here in Hockeytown, we also have a fear that the Blackhawks will next year over take the Wings as the kings(not L.A.) of the Campbell Conference, much like the Chicago Bulls unseated the Detroit Pistons after there early 90’s championship run.

  20. Thanks Rick.

    I had the idea since the start of both series and finally got it all together last night. ‘Canes had me nervous for a while last night, but then the Malkin show took over, making it 2 zip for both Detroit and Pittsburgh.

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