When the NHL Draft Lottery (Phase 1) produced a placeholder at the top of the draw, the handwringing began immediately: What if, in this year from outer space, an already-awesome team has a hiccup in the qualifying round, enters Phase 2 of the lottery and winds up with the No. 1 pick?
Of course, should a high-seeded squad like the Pittsburgh Penguins or Edmonton Oilers get bounced in a qualifier, it will be because a team that under normal circumstances would have been outside the playoff picture is suddenly in the main draw. That could cue another form of concern: What if an unworthy outfit actually advances to the Stanley Cup Final?
Considering the three-round grind it takes to make a Final, you could argue any club that gets there — regardless of its regular season record — has proven itself as a quality team. That said, there have been some pretty suspect squads get to the showcase series.
With that in mind, here’s a look at the worst teams to get within four (or fewer) wins of the Stanley Cup.
1991 Minnesota North Stars
Mario Lemieux’s coming out party — “What a goal! What a move! Ohhh Baby!” — came at the expense of a North Stars team that really should get more play for the astonishing upsets it pulled off.
After finishing fourth in a Norris Division that had two awesome teams (Chicago and St. Louis) and three average-to-awful ones (Detroit, Minnesota and Toronto), the 27-39-14 North Stars (.425 points percentage) went on an absurd run. The fact they beat a Blackhawks team that finished 38 points ahead of them is pretty well known in hockey lore as one of the biggest first-round whackings in history. You know what they did in Round 2? Beat a Blues team that finished 37 points ahead of them in the same number of games — six — it took to dust Chicago.
Minny only needed five games to win the conference final, knocking off an Edmonton team that had won the Stanley Cup 12 months prior. And, by the way, they held a 2-1 series lead on Mario and Co., before the Penguins ripped off three straight wins. Things finally caught up to them in the end, as Pittsburgh clinched the Cup with an 8-0 victory in Game 6.
1982 Vancouver Canucks
We’re so conditioned to talking about the parity in today’s game that it’s easy to forget what a monstrous gulf once existed between the NHL’s good and bad teams. Expansion through the late 1960s and ’70s coupled with the World Hockey Association merger — the NHL absorbed four new teams for the 1979-80 season — produced some wild record discrepancies in a 21-team circuit.
Despite finishing with a 30-33-17 mark, the Canucks actually placed second in the Smythe Division behind the second-best team in the league, the Edmonton Oilers. And when that 111-point Oilers squad lost to a 63-point Los Angeles Kings club in the first round, the road to the Final was wide open in a Campbell Conference where just two of 11 squads posted a winning record.
Vancouver only lost two games en route to the Final and never faced a .500-or-better club on the path. Unfortunately, the dynastic New York Islanders — who emerged from a conference where seven of 10 teams finished above .500 — were waiting in the Final and swept coach Roger Neilson and his charges.
By the way, the 1994 Canucks that came painfully close to beating Mark Messier and the Rangers could also be on this list. That outfit was 41-40-3 (84 games!) before catching fire in the post-season.
1999 Buffalo Sabres
This plucky team will be remembered forever because it lost the Final on Brett Hull’s toe-in-the-crease tally that won Game 6 in overtime. But the “No Goal” Sabres were really the no goals Sabres. Yes, Buffalo finished ninth overall in the NHL in the 1998-99 season, but it ranked 17th in goals-per-game with 2.52 and 21st in power-play efficiency at 13.5 per cent (though that mark jumped to 20 per cent in the playoffs).
The Sabres had just one player top 60 points in the regular season and that was 40-goal man Miroslav Satan. In the playoffs, their leading scorers were — I kid you not — defencemen Jason Woolley and Alexei Zhitnik, who had identical 4-11-15 lines in 21 contests.
All of this, of course, is the preamble to saying, when you had late-90s Dominik Hasek in goal, anything was possible. ‘The Dominator’ posted a .939 save percentage in the 1999 playoffs, lifting Buffalo to the Final one year after getting the squad to the East Final.
2010 Philadelphia Flyers
This is a bit of a stretch, but we had to get a team from this century on here. Philly finished 41-35-6 in a season that saw Peter Laviolette replace John Stevens behind the bench. The seventh-seeded Flyers actually had home-ice advantage in the Eastern Conference Final because the only team worse than it — No. 8 seed Montreal — rode Jaroslav Halak’s goaltending to upset wins over the Capitals and Penguins.
This Flyers team fell in an 0-3 series hole to the Bruins in Round 2, then stormed back to rip off four straight wins. Philly even got behind 3-0 in Game 7 in Boston and managed to escape with a win.
In a Final versus the Blackhawks where neither team knew what it would get from its goalies — Philly had Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher, Chicago rolled the dice with Antti Niemi — the Hawks got a few more saves and won the series on Patrick Kane’s “I swear it’s in!” Game 6 overtime winner.
Post-expansion St. Louis Blues
Go ahead and attach your asterisks. For the first three seasons following the great expansion of 1967, the NHL slotted the Original Six in one division and the six new guys in another. As a result, a very overmatched team was going to play in the Stanley Cup Final for each of those three years, and that club was the Blues.
St. Louis failed to win a game in that trio of trips to the Final, getting swept by the Canadiens in 1968 and ’69, before Bobby Orr flew through the air in 1970. The Blues relied on an all-time goalie battery to keep things close and while you tend to think of Glenn Hall backstopping this group in his twilight years, Jacques Plante also did some remarkable work in the Blues crease. He posted a .950 save percentage in 10 playoffs games at age 40 in ’69, then came back the next year at 41 and put up a .936 mark in six outings.