The NHL officially has officially turned 100, as today marks exactly one century since the league took to the ice for its first two games way back in 1917. It’s been a long road from there to here, and there were more than a few times that it looked like the league wouldn’t make it. But here we are. Happy birthday, NHL.
So what do you get for the league that has everything? Let’s go with a ranking of every season. That’s right, all of them.
Comparing eras across a century is tricky, to say the least, and most of us will probably point to whenever we were kids and say that was the peak. A lot of this is personal taste. Do you like lots of goals or low-scoring hockey? Is the presence of one dominant team that runs over everyone a good or a bad thing? How do you even begin to compare the 1920s to today’s modern game? And of course, maybe most importantly, how did your favourite team do that year? Your list would probably look very different from mine, and coming up with something everyone will agree on is next to impossible.
But that never stopped us before, so here we go. We’ll count down from worst to best, meaning we’ll have to start at the league’s rock bottom. I’m guessing this is the one pick we might all agree on.
— No. 100: 2004–05 —
The season that wasn’t. To this day, the NHL remains the only league in major North American pro sports to lose an entire season to a work stoppage. The NFL, NBA and even MLB never did it. But Gary Bettman, the owners and the NHLPA found a way, and there’s a blank panel on the Stanley Cup to remind us of that.
— No. 99: 1942–43 —
Today this season summons some nostalgia as the first of the Original Six era. But by 1942, the NHL has been decimated by the war, with many players serving overseas, local curfews impacting the product, and dismal economic conditions. At one point, there’s even talk of temporarily shutting down. The Rangers probably wish the league had, as they suffer through one of the worst seasons in the history of sports. And to make matters worse, the league loses the only president it’s ever had when Frank Calder dies.
— No. 98: 1928–29 —
— No. 97: 1927–28 —
What’s the right amount of scoring for an NHL season? Everyone has their own opinion, but surely we can all agree that four goals a game or under — that’s for both teams — is unwatchable. That’s where the league is during the 1927–28 season. By 1928–29, the rate has fallen under three, and of the 220 games played that year, 120 end in a shutout. The result is a major rule change: Finally allowing the forward pass in all three zones beginning with the 1929–30 season.
— No. 96: 1917–18 —
In terms of historical significance, few seasons can hold a candle to the league’s very first. But this was also nearly the last, as the new league comes close to collapsing within weeks of opening night. There were only four teams to start with, and that number shrinks to three when the Montreal Wanderers’ arena burns down and they fold. The unnamed Toronto team eventually wins the league title, but the bigger story is that the league survived at all.
— No. 95: 1931–32 —
The league shrinks for the first time since the Wanderers arena fire, losing a founding member in the Senators as well as the Philadelphia Quakers, which temporarily overshadows the opening of Maple Leaf Gardens.
— No. 94: 1918–19 —
Do we penalize this season for having the Stanley Cup series wiped out by an influenza outbreak? Remember, the Cup wasn’t technically part of the NHL season back then. Still, it was a difficult ending to a rocky second season for the league.
— No. 93: 1994–95 —
The first lockout season squanders the momentum the league had been building. The Nordiques move south at the end of the season, and the Jets are expected to be right behind them until getting a one-year reprieve at the last minute. Even the Devils are reportedly on the verge of heading to Nashville. They shrug that off to win their first-ever Cup, but usher in the era of the neutral-zone trap in the process.
— No. 92: 1967–68 —
This was a tough year for traditionalists, as the Original Six era ends and the league doubles in size overnight. In the long run, that’s a good thing. But it makes for an uneven season made worse by the league’s insistence on putting all six new teams in one division, leading to three years of anti-climactic Cup final sweeps. Worse, the league suffers its greatest on-ice tragedy when Bill Masterton becomes the only player to die from an injury in a game.
— No. 91: 1933–34 —
A decent season is marred by Eddie Shore ending Ace Bailey’s career with a hit from behind. A benefit game played later that season at Maple Leaf Gardens becomes the predecessor to today’s all-star game.
— No. 90: 1919–20 —
— No. 89: 1920–21 —
— No. 88: 1921–22 —
— No. 87: 1922–23 —
— No. 86: 1923–24 —
The fledgling NHL has settled in as a four-team entity, early stars like Phantom Joe Malone, Newsy Lalonde and Clint Benedict are dominating, and Howie Morenz debuts. The game still doesn’t look much like what we know today, but the league is stabilizing, and expansion is becoming a possibility.
— No. 85: 2010–11 —
The Canucks are dominant, right up until they lose a stunning seven-game final to the Bruins. But most of this season’s signature moments are negative — a post-Cup riot in Vancouver, the Thrashers failing in Atlanta, and Sidney Crosby slowly skating off the Winter Classic ice with a concussion.
— No. 84: 1925–26 —
— No. 83: 1926–27 —
Scoring is low and the games are largely unwatchable by today’s standards. But while nobody knew it at the time, the Original Six begins to take shape in 1926, as the New York Rangers, Chicago Black Hawks and Detroit Falcons (soon to be Red Wings) all join the league. Meanwhile, Conn Smythe buys the St. Pats and renames them the Maple Leafs.
— No. 82: 1954–55 —
A strong season is tarnished by the Richard Riots, which give the league a black eye and, at least according to Montreal fans, cost the Habs the Stanley Cup.
— No. 81: 2002–03 —
Financial problems are the big story, as the Senators and Sabres go bankrupt and the Penguins don’t seem far behind. The playoffs deliver a fun Cinderella story as the Ducks take the Devils to seven games in the final. Paul Kariya’s return from a Scott Stevens KO to score the Game 6 winner was an amazing moment at the time; now that we know more about concussions, not so much.
— No. 80: 1924–25 —
The good news: The league welcomed its first American team, as the Boston Bruins join the league. But they’re terrible, finishing dead last. Then the first-place Hamilton Tigers go on strike before the playoffs start; the league suspends the entire team. The franchise leaves Hamilton, and the city hasn’t had an NHL team since. This was also the last season in which the NHL crowned a champion that didn’t win the Stanley Cup, as the Canadiens lose it to the WCHL’s Victoria Cougars.
— No. 79: 1968–69 —
The league’s second post-expansion season is an improvement, but only marginally so. Phil Esposito sets the stage for the scoring surge to come by becoming the first 100-point player, while Bobby Hull records a record 58 goals. Neither record lasts long.
— No. 77: 1930–31 —
— No. 78: 1932–33 —
— No. 76: 1929–30 —
The new forward-pass rule works, and offense gets a boost. The Bruins emerge as the league’s best team, but won’t win another Cup until the end of the decade.
— No. 75: 2003–04 —
A campaign that’s all about not scoring, as for the first time since 1968 a full season passes without a 50-goal or 100-point scorer, and the Stanley Cup final is best remembered for an apparent goal that didn’t count. It barely matters, since almost everything is overshadowed by the upcoming lockout Armageddon.
— No. 74: 1943–44 —
A war-torn league is still short on star power, but Toe Blake scores Montreal’s first-ever overtime Cup winner as the Canadiens emerge as the first dominant team of the Original Six era.
— No. 73: 1997–98 —
— No. 72: 1996–97 —
— No. 71: 1998–99 —
By the late ’90s, the Dead Puck era is in full effect. It’s becoming clear the league had no idea what to do about it, even as the criticism is starting to pour in. Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky both retire. The 1997 and 1998 finals end in sweeps; the league probably wishes the 1999 one did, too, instead of being ruined by the terrible skate-in-crease rule.
— No. 70: 1952–53 —
It’s the height of the Gordie Howe vs. Rocket Richard years. But for the only time in a four-year stretch, we don’t get that matchup in the final, as the Bruins spoil the party. A forgotten side note to this season: The NHL briefly welcomes the Cleveland Barons as a seventh team, before later rescinding the offer.
— No. 69: 1987–88 —
This season has its moments, including Ron Hextall becoming the first goalie to shoot and score and Lemieux wrestling the Hart Trophy from Gretzky. But things go off the rails in the playoffs, where the league’s response to the “Have another doughnut” controversy is an embarrassment, and the Stanley Cup final features a game cancelled due to a power failure.
— No. 68: 1945–46 —
The Canadiens finish first and win the Cup in a season that’s largely uneventful. Given some of the chaos of recent years, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
— No. 67: 1981–82 —
— No. 66: 1980–81 —
The middle years of the Islanders dynasty. Two Presidents’ Trophies + two overmatched final opponents = two anti-climactic Cup wins.
— No. 65: 2012–13 —
The Blackhawks take a run at the points-streak record before capturing their second Cup in a thriller against the Bruins. About as fun as a lockout-shortened season can be, which is to say, only kind of fun.
— No. 64: 2001–02 —
The Red Wings dominate the regular season, then eliminate the arch-rival Avalanche in an all-time classic that features Patrick Roy’s Statue of Liberty gaffe and an epic 7–0 beatdown in Game 7. Unfortunately, that all happens in the conference final; the Cup final is a forgettable mismatch against the Hurricanes.
— No. 63: 1934–35 —
— No. 62: 1939–40 —
— No. 61: 1935–36 —
— No. 60: 1937–38 —
— No. 59: 1938–39 —
—No. 58: 1940–41 —
— No. 57: 1936–37 —
With the Great Depression wreaking havoc, the league closes in on the Original Six era by saying goodbye to the St. Louis Eagles, Montreal Maroons, Eddie Shore and Howie Morenz, while welcoming Syl Apps, penalty shots, icing, and the seven-game playoff series. American teams dominate; the Red Wings win their first two Cups, while the Rangers win a title in 1940 that evolves into a chant over the next 54 years.
— No. 56: 2011–12 —
The Kings make it a little too easy as they roll to their first-ever Cup, and the sight of a six-seed facing an eight-seed in the final makes fans wonder if this whole parity thing isn’t going a little too far.
— No. 55: 1999–2000 —
The NHL welcomes the new millennium by ruining the standings with the loser point. But the playoffs are fun, and the final brings a matchup between the Devils and defending-champion Stars that ends with Jason Arnott’s OT Cup winner.
— No. 54: 1941–42 —
The last year before the Original Six era sees the league thrown into turmoil when the United States enters the war. But today it’s probably best remembered for the greatest Stanley Cup comeback in history, as the Leafs rally from down 3–0 to beat the Wings in seven.
— No. 53: 2006–07 —
The second season of the cap era sees scoring drop and the Ducks and Senators deliver a dud of a Cup final. There are highlights, including Crosby’s first Hart and Martin Brodeur breaking the single-season wins record. But overall, a bit of a letdown.
— No. 52: 1960–61 —
The Canadiens’ dynasty ends in shocking fashion at the hands of the Hawks, who go on to beat the Red Wings for what will be their last Cup for nearly 50 years. It’s the only Cup of the Original Six era that isn’t won by the Habs, Leafs or Wings.
— No. 51: 1990–91 —
— No. 50: 1991–92 —
Something people forget about the Penguins’ first two championships: While the teams were stacked, they weren’t very good during the regular season, finishing under 90 points both years before dominating the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Sharks arrive, but Eric Lindros does not.
— No. 49: 1946–47 —
— No. 48: 1947–48 —
— No. 47: 1948–49 —
The Maple Leafs win all three Cups despite finishing in first place only once. But in hindsight, something even more important is happening in Detroit, where a teenager named Gordie Howe is getting started on a career that would last a few more decades.
— No. 46: 1995–96 —
A study in contrasts that would define the next decade. The powerhouse Penguins score a ton, but get clutch-and-grabbed out of the playoffs. Wayne Gretzky winds up in St. Louis, then gets his pocket picked by Steve Yzerman. The Panthers make a Cinderella run to the final, but get swept. The Avalanche win a Cup in their first season in Colorado but, well, sorry Quebec City. Maybe this season’s most lasting legacy: It launches the Avs/Wings rivalry.
— No. 45: 1974–75 —
— No. 44: 1973–74 —
It’s all about expansion. The Broad Street Bullies become the first team from the 1967 wave to win it all, brawling their way to two Cups. Meanwhile, the Capitals and Scouts arrive and are terrible, and the Atlanta Flames are still struggling. These Islanders seem like they might be OK someday, though.
— No. 43: 2014–15 —
The Blackhawks win yet again, which is cool. Not so much: Jamie Benn taking the scoring title with just 87 points while several teams openly tank for Connor McDavid.
— No. 42: 1989–90 —
The Oilers surprise everyone by winning their first Cup without Gretzky, as Mark Messier emerges as one of the league’s biggest stars. For Edmonton, it turns out to be the end of an era. Their final with the Bruins delivers the longest overtime game in final history, but not much else.
— No. 41: 1964–65 —
— No. 40: 1965–66 —
The winds of expansion are already blowing through the league. But first, the Canadiens win two more Cups and Bobby Hull sets the single-season records for goals and points.
— No. 39: 2009–10 —
Still the greatest Stanley Cup winner nobody noticed at the time. Patrick Kane’s overtime goal ends the Blackhawks’ Cup drought and signals the arrival of a modern-day dynasty. That caps off an unpredictable postseason, especially in the East where Jaroslav Halak’s hot streak wipes out the Capitals and Pens.
— No. 38: 1985–86 —
The Oilers are dominant, right up until they score into their own net in Game 7 against the Flames. That clears a path for the Canadiens to win another Cup, this one powered by rookie goalie Patrick Roy. But tragedy strikes when Flyers’ star Pelle Lindbergh is killed in a mid-season car accident; fans make him the only player voted to the all-star game posthumously.
— No. 37: 1961–62 —
— No. 36: 1962–63 —
— No. 35: 1963–64 —
The last of the Maple Leafs’ dynasties delivers three straight Cups, and makes a hero out of Bobby Baun. Meanwhile, Glenn Hall’s streak ends, Hull joins the 50-goal club and Howe wins his last Hart.
— No. 34: 1984–85 —
The Oilers roll to their second straight Cup, losing only three playoff games along the way; this is the team that fans would vote the greatest ever, even though many of us would point to these next guys instead.
— No. 33: 1975–76 —
— No. 32: 1977–78 —
— No. 31: 1976–77 —
After back-to-back Flyer wins, the Canadiens reassert the Original Six claim on the Cup with the launch of a new dynasty. These are often called the greatest teams of all-time, especially the 1976–77 edition. Lots of speed, skill and Stanley for Montreal fans; not much suspense (or even hope) for everyone else.
— No. 30: 1950–51 —
— No. 29: 1951–52 —
— No. 28: 1949–50 —
By now, it’s the Rocket and Gordie show, with help from names like Ted Lindsay, Bernie Geoffrion, Milt Schmidt, Ted Kennedy and Terry Sawchuk. The Red Wings win the first four of seven straight regular-season titles, two of which are followed by Stanley Cups. Today’s fans may not remember a lot of the specifics from these years, but make no mistake: This is where the DNA of what would become the modern NHL is being written.
— No. 27: 2015–16 —
— No. 26: 2016–17 —
Connor McDavid arrives, P.K. Subban lands in Nashville, and the Capitals win a pair of Presidents’ Trophies. But nobody can beat Crosby and the Penguins, who win the first back-to-back Cups of the cap era.
— No. 25: 1971–72 —
— No. 24: 1972–73 —
— No. 23: 1970–71 —
— No. 22: 1969–70 —
As scoring explodes across the league, the early ’70s become the Bobby Orr show. He posts seasons of 120 and 139 points, wins the Hart and Norris, finishes one season with an unfathomable +124 rating, and scores his iconic flying Cup winner in 1970.
— No. 21: 1986–87 —
The Oilers reclaim the Cup, but it takes a seven-game thriller against Ron Hextall and the Flyers to make it happen in what stands as the decade’s most dramatic final.
— No. 20: 2000–01 —
All of the Dead Puck Era’s worst qualities are on full display here — one opening night preview writes that “Games are dull and tedious affairs. The season is interminable, an 82-game death march. Goals are ugly.” But none of that matters, because all we remember are two of the most emotional moments in NHL history: Lemieux’s banner lowering to signal his surprise return to the league, and Joe Sakic handing the Cup to Ray Bourque.
— No. 19: 2013–14 —
The Kings and Blackhawks spent a good chunk of a decade trading Cups, but only met in the playoffs twice. The 2013 meeting was a dud, with Chicago winning in five. In 2014, the rematch delivers quite possibly the most entertaining playoff series of the modern era. You know a series is good when it’s settled in Game 7 overtime, and that’s not even the most memorable sudden-death action of the series. The season also produces six other seven-game series, one of the best outdoor games yet, and a marquee Kings/Rangers final that ends in overtime.
— No. 18: 1979–80 —
One dynasty ends and another begins, as the Habs give way to the Islanders. The Butch Goring deal defines the modern trade deadline, and a double cohort produces an influx of talent from one of the greatest drafts ever. The league welcomes four WHA teams, including Gretzky and the Oilers, and the Flyers run off 35 straight without a loss, the longest undefeated streak ever in North American pro sports.
— No. 17: 1955–56 —
— No. 16: 1956–57 —
— No. 15: 1957–58 —
— No. 14: 1958–59 —
— No. 13: 1959–60 —
The Montreal Canadiens become the only dynasty in NHL history to win five straight Cups, as Richard, Doug Harvey, Jacques Plante, Jean Beliveau and company are basically unbeatable. If you enjoy the modern NHL’s insistence on parity above all else, you wouldn’t have enjoyed this era. But we’ll never see a greater collection of talent.
— No. 12: 2007–08 —
— No. 11: 2008–09 —
The Penguins and Red Wings deliver back-to-back thrillers in the Cup final, including one of the most dramatic finishes of all time. Meanwhile, the Ovechkin/Crosby rivalry is in full bloom, the Blackhawks are building a monster, and the Winter Classic is born.
— No. 10: 1988–89 —
The Gretzky trade has redefined the landscape, and the Flames finally get their Cup in what remains the last all-Canadian final. Four players crack the 150-point mark, including Lemieux’s career-high 199. He also has his five-goals-five-ways game, which was recently voted the league’s greatest moment.
— No. 9: 1993–94 —
The Rangers finally end their Cup drought, but it takes Game 7 wins over the Devils and Canucks in two of the best series ever. A rookie Brodeur and veteran Dominik Hasek emerge, Gretzky wins his last Art Ross, and Pavel Bure and Sergei Fedorov are unstoppable. At the end of the season, the league has so much momentum that a Sports Illustrated cover declares that “The NHL is hot and the NBA’s not.” What could go wrong?
— No. 8: 1978–79 —
The Islanders are improving and the WHA is about to collapse, setting the stage for a wild decade to come. But first, the last great Canadiens dynasty earns its fourth and final Stanley Cup. So why does this season rank in the top 10 while the other three are further up the list? Two reasons. First, this year’s Habs at least looked vaguely beatable, creating some sense of suspense. And more importantly, while they beat the Rangers in the final, the season’s lasting memory will be the decade’s most iconic game: Don Cherry and the Bruins having too many men on the ice to open the door to a Canadiens comeback in Game 7 of the conference final. Guy Lafluer ties it and Yvon Lambert wins it; many say that it’s the loudest The Forum ever got.
— No. 7: 1982–83 —
— No. 6: 1983–84 —
Scoring is high — let’s be honest, maybe too high — and Gretzky is obliterating the record book. And in a rare chance to see one dynasty pass the torch directly to the next, we get back-to-back final matchups between the Islanders and Oilers. New York’s grizzled veterans take the first meeting, but the next generation proves too much in the rematch, as Gretzky truly takes over as the face of the sport.
— No. 5: 2005–2006 —
Maybe we were just happy to have hockey back, but this season served up all sorts of excitement. Scoring is up, the shootout is still a novelty, the Red Wings dominate, and the eventual MVP gets traded midway through the year. It all culminates in an unpredictable postseason that leaves us wondering if every season of the cap era would be this much fun. They wouldn’t, but we didn’t know that at the time.
— No. 4: 1944–45 —
The Maple Leafs cap off a dramatic post-season by beating the Red Wings in seven to capture the Stanley Cup. But this season would be defined by one man: Rocket Richard, who scores 50 goals in 50 games to become the sport’s first transcendent star.
— No. 3: 1953–54 —
If you had to pick just one season to represent the NHL’s golden era, this might be the one. Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Red Kelly and Terry Sawchuk vs. Rocket Richard, Jean Beliveau, Boom Boom Geoffrion and Doug Harvey in an epic Stanley Cup final. The series delivers and then some, as for only the second time in NHL history the Cup is won on a Game 7 OT goal. And with all those Hall of Famers in play, it’s Detroit pest Tony Leswick who nets the winner.
— No. 2: 1966–67 —
You couldn’t have scripted a better finish to the Original Six era. With expansion on the way and Canada celebrating its centennial, the country gets its dream matchup when the Maple Leafs and Canadiens meet in the final for the first time since 1960. The Habs go in as heavy favourites, but the Leafs’ Over-the-Hill Gang pull off the upset in six. Foster Hewitt calls the action as George Armstrong seals the win with his famous empty-netter. For the league, it’s literally the end of an era, but the future looks bright — some rookie named Bobby Orr makes his debut in Boston.
— No. 1: 1992–93 —
It’s almost impossible to comprehend this many memorable moments packed into a single season, many of which can be conjured with a word or two: Selanne’s glove, Gilmour’s spin-o-rama, May Day, Gretzky’s high stick, David Volek, McSorley’s stick, Roy’s wink… the list just goes on and on. The Penguins’ dynasty is cut short, the Leafs are resurrected, and the Canadiens ride an almost impossible overtime streak all the way to their 24th Stanley Cup. All of that would be enough to move this season to the top of the list, and we haven’t even mentioned the debut of Eric Lindros, 76 goals from Alexander Mogilny, Domi vs. Probert, or the arrival of the Senators and Lightning.
And yet the season’s most memorable moments come in January, when Mario Lemieux makes the stunning announcement that he’d been diagnosed with cancer, and then in March, when he returns after two months of treatment. Despite missing 24 games, Lemieux storms back to reclaim the scoring title from Pat LaFontaine, helping the Penguins to a record 17 straight wins along the way.
Add it all up, and you’ve got a reminder of how much fun this league can be when it’s at its very best. It was a once-in-a-century season; here’s hoping we get to enjoy another one like it at some point over the league’s next 100 years.
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