The Original 21


The Stanley Cup
The Cup (Photo by jvh33/Flickr)

In 1979, the NHL absorbed the four strongest surviving members of the WHA, expanding the league to 21 teams. For several reasons, the 1979-80 season is a good starting point for comparing the long term, relative performances of teams over time. All 21 franchises that were around in 1979 are still alive, although some have moved.

For the first time beginning with the 1980 post-season, 16 teams made the playoffs. It’s been that way ever since. Every team that has won the Stanley Cup in each year since 1980 has had to win four playoff rounds to take the ultimate prize. For 29 seasons, omitting the 2005 lockout, there have been exactly 15 playoff series per year.

Only 11 of the 21 franchises that have been in existence since 1979 have won the Cup at least once. It would be misleading to suggest that the Cupless teams have enjoyed no success at all since then. Their respective fans have sometimes cheered them on deep into the playoffs without the summer-long satisfaction of a climaxing parade.

Second to Stanley Cup victories, the actual number of playoff series wins (not playoff game wins) would seem to be a good measure of success over time. Yes, there is a strong correlation between Cup victories and playoff series victories, but there are some surprises. There have been at least a couple of teams that have made the playoffs often, won a series or two, but came up short of collecting Lord Stanley’s silverware. Here’s the list of 21 franchises that were around in 1979 and how many playoff series they have won since then:

1 Detroit Red Wings 34
2 Edmonton Oilers 34
3 Minnesota North Stars/Dallas Stars 26
4 Montreal Canadiens 25
5 Quebec Nordiques/Colorado Avalanche 25
6 Philadelphia Flyers 25
7 Pittsburgh Penguins 24
8 New York Islanders 23
9 Colorado Rockies/New Jersey Devils 22
10 New York Rangers 19
11 Chicago Blackhawks 19
12 Boston Bruins 18
13 Buffalo Sabres 16
14 St. Louis Blues 16
15 Atlanta/Calgary Flames 15
16 Toronto Maple Leafs 13
17 Vancouver Canucks 12
18 Washington Capitals 11
19 Hartford Whalers/Carolina Hurricanes 10
20 Los Angeles Kings 8
21 Winnipeg Jets/Phoenix Coyotes 2
Canadian Press 1988

Surprised? It’s easy to understand how the Wings and Oilers are so far ahead of the pack. Nine Stanley Cups between them, and the Oilers won three playoff series in one playoff year as recently as 2006 on their way to the Final. The Wings have just been very good and consistent for a long time.

The Minnesota North Stars/ Dallas Stars may be a surprise third placer in the list, but apart from a Cup, and thus four series wins to their credit in 1999, the North Stars/Stars have been to the Cup final three other times. As is the case with many teams that eventually win the Cup, the Stars paid their dues by going on prolonged playoff runs in years before finally winning the big one. It all adds up to several playoff series triumphs and lots for their fans to cheer about.

The Canadiens and Avalanche have each won a couple of Cups since 1980. The Canadiens have also been to a final in 1989 when they finished 2nd best. The Flyers have been consistently good over time, just not very lucky. They’ve been bridesmaids but not brides since their last Cup in 1975 and have been close. Like many teams who have fallen short, they ultimately wound up running into the invincible Oilers or Red Wings.

The Penguins went through a playoff drought in the 1980’s until Mario Lemieux warmed up. Through excellent drafting, solid management, demanding fans and some good luck, they’re once again successful and the team to beat.

The Islanders achieved almost all of their success in the early ‘80’s when they totally dominated, winning a record 19 playoff series in a row. The Devils survived a horrible decade in the 1980’s but have been consistently great since Martin Brodeur took over crease duty.
The Rangers won a Cup in 1994, but have made the playoffs and won a series or two many times. Same with the Blackhawks who had very good teams in the ‘80’s but just couldn’t beat the Oilers.

The Boston Bruins have been consistently good. Their downfall often has been their all-time dreadful record against the Canadiens in the playoffs, but they did go all the way to the finals against the Oilers a couple of times.

The Sabres and Blues each have a respectable 16 playoff series wins since 1980, but no Cups. They’re overdue. The Flames were hot in the ‘80’s and did win a Cup. They also went all the way to the final in 2004.

At this point, the list drops off into the under achievers category. The Leafs have missed the playoffs entirely a total of 12 times since 1980 and have never won more than 2 series in any playoff year. With the exception of two or three teasing flukes, they have been mostly awful. The Canucks have been to the final a couple of times, but a lot more has been expected.

Washington went to the Stanley Cup final in 1998. One gets the feeling that their best is soon to come. Apart from a couple of unbelievable seasons and even one Cup, the Whalers/Hurricanes have been mostly mediocre. Same with the Los Angeles Kings, rarely exceptional.

At the bottom and in a miserable class of their own with only two playoff series victories in 29 seasons are the Winnipeg Jets/Phoenix Coyotes. They’ve yet to win a series since the franchise was transferred to the desert in 1996. Noble heroes have tried to rescue this disastrous venture, but our stubborn commissioner insists that skating in sand is viable.

Of the teams that have been in the NHL since 1991 or later, the Anaheim Ducks have won 11 playoff series, the San Jose Sharks, 9 and the Ottawa Senators, 8. Tampa Bay, Florida and the Minnesota Wild have enjoyed some success, including a Cup for the Lightning. Three of the newer teams have yet to win a playoff round.

The teams considered to have provided their fans with the most bang for their buck over time depends on how old their fans are and how demanding they have been. In most cities, fans don’t even show up unless the team is winning. The fear of empty seats always provides additional incentive for management to ice a winner. As a good and loyal hockey fan, hopefully your team has been historically good to you.

Stanley Cup Parade
Lapresse 1993

1 thought on “The Original 21”

  1. This tells me that whether you build thru the draft, bring in aged veterans or get lucky and draft Gretzky or Lemieux…the best organizations are still lucky to average one playoff series win a year over a period of time. Fans need to have much much lower expectations and just go and enjoy the hockey. Your team, whether the hallowed Canadiens or scrappy Devils, is probably not going to win the Cup and maybe not even a single series. Full disclosure: I am a hockey fan…I enjoy the talent.

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