With Sunday night’s win over the Nashville Predators, the Pittsburgh Penguins captured their second-straight Stanley Cup, becoming the first team to repeat as champions since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings. That’s an impressive feat, especially in today’s parity-driven age.
But the Penguins also reached another important milestone: Three Stanley Cup wins since the 2005 lockout, which ties them with the Chicago Blackhawks for the most titles under the salary cap system.
Well, this is the NHL, and we’re not allowed to have ties. So today, let’s pit the last dozen years of the Blackhawks against the Penguins as we attempt to determine which team deserves to be called the best of its era.
Regular Season Success
While any comparison between the Penguins and Blackhawks will focus on their playoff success, the regular season matters too. In fact, because teams play so many more games during the season than in the playoffs, it can often tell us more about a team’s overall quality.
The case for the Penguins: Pittsburgh has racked up more regular-season points since 2005, out-pacing Chicago by an average of three points per season. It’s made the playoffs 11 times to Chicago’s nine, and also holds an edge in 100-point seasons, with nine to the Blackhawks’ eight.
The case for the Blackhawks: You could argue that the regular season gap between the two teams is more about timing than quality – the Blackhawks didn’t emerge as a true contender until 2008, giving the Penguins a two-year head start. Despite that disadvantage, the Hawks have matched the Penguins in division titles with three, and hold a 1-0 edge in Presidents’ Trophy seasons.
Edge: Penguins. We did say we were looking at the entire cap era, so those first few post-lockout years have to count – but only a little.
The two teams may be tied in Cup wins, but that’s not the only way to measure post-season dominance.
The case for the Penguins: The Penguins have done more winning in the playoffs, and it’s not all that close. Pittsburgh has won 19 series in the cap era, well ahead of Chicago’s 13. The Penguins made it out of the first round seven times, while the Blackhawks have managed only five. They’ve been to one more Cup final and they hold a significant edge in playoff games won.
The case for the Blackhawks: They held the edge in this category in 2015, but that was a long time ago. There’s really no case to be made on the Chicago side here, unless you want to play the “Cups are all that matter” card.
Edge: Penguins. Pittsburgh jumps out to an early 2-0 lead, and this time it’s not even Pekka Rinne’s fault.
Consistency is nice. Long-term success is better. But when you’re evaluating a team, you also want to know what they could do when they were at their absolute best. We took a run at this question last week, when we ranked the ten best single-season teams of the cap era.
The case for the Penguins: This year’s Penguins took seventh spot on our ten-best list, and that was before they’d wrapped up the Cup. You could probably nudge them up a spot or two now that they’ve made it official. The other two Cup-winning teams were honorable mentions.
The case for the Blackhawks: The Blackhawks placed two teams on the list, including the team we called the best of the entire era. That was the 2012-13 Hawks, who started the year by going undefeated in 24 straight, won the Presidents’ Trophy and then took home the Cup. The 2009-10 team ranked fourth, while the 2014-15 team was an honorable mention.
Edge: Blackhawks. We’re looking at over a decade here, so the overall record is what should matter most, but there’s a good chance that the Hawks’ best team of the era could beat Pittsburgh’s, and that counts for something.
It’s a team game, but when it comes to judging legacies, individual dominance matters.
The case for the Penguins: Crosby and Malkin have combined for three Hart Trophies, four Art Ross wins, one Calder and seven first-team all-star honours. (There’s also an outside chance Crosby could win another MVP and/or all-star spot for this season.) In the cap era, they’ve also seen first-team all-star slots go to James Neal and Chris Kunitz. Wait, Kunitz was a first-team all-star? Look, 2013 was a weird year.
The case for the Blackhawks: Duncan Keith has won two Norris Trophies, an award the Penguins haven’t won since Randy Carlyle back in 1981. Other than that, they’ve got Kane’s Hart and Art Ross from last season, Calder wins by Kane and Artemi Panarin, and Kane and Keith have combined for four all-star honours.
Edge: The Penguins take this one fairly easily. But wait, surely there must be a far more objective and even quasi-random way to measure individual greatness?
Players Who Made The NHL’s Top 100 List
You can be great. You can be an all-star. But are you good enough to make the NHL’s recent list of the top 100 players in the history of the league?
The case for the Penguins: Just Crosby. I respect that Jim Rutherford is still bitter about Malkin being snubbed.
The case for the Blackhawks: Kane and Keith and Jonathan Toews. I think the NHL might like promoting the Blackhawks, you guys.
Edge: Blackhawks. Man, that list was weird.
Low Point That Nobody Talks About Anymore
Pittsburgh and Chicago are two of the best hockey markets in the league, and always have been. Um, maybe let’s all skip this section.
The case for the Penguins: Back in 2007, with talks for a new arena going poorly, the Penguins seemed to be on the verge of leaving Pittsburgh all together. If a deal hadn’t come together, we could be talking about the Kansas City Penguins right now.
The case for the Blackhawks: In each of the first two seasons of the cap era, the Blackhawks finished 29th in the league in attendance, well behind much-maligned markets like Phoenix, Florida and even Atlanta.
Edge: Even. Now let’s never speak of this again.
Coaching And Front Office
A team isn’t all about the players on the ice. Sometimes, the guys behind the bench and upstairs are as important, if not even more so.
The case for the Penguins: Somewhat surprisingly given their near-constant success, the Penguins have churned through five coaches in the cap era. That seems high, but it’s worked for them – they’ve somehow pulled off the rare “fire a coach mid-season and win the Cup the same year” move twice. They’ve also gone through three GMs (not counting Jason Botterill’s interim duties), and you won’t find many trios more respected than Craig Patrick, Ray Shero and Jim Rutherford.
The case for the Blackhawks: Chicago has been remarkably stable once they got past that weird Trent Yawney/Denis Savard era coming out of the lockout. Joel Quenneville took over in 2008, and is now the longest serving coach in the league. Meanwhile, the team has had just two cap-era GMs, Dale Tallon and Stan Bowman. Those are two of the very best in the business, and Tallon might still be there if it weren’t for that whole qualifying offer mix-up in 2009.
Edge: Blackhawks. It’s ridiculous that Quenneville has never won a Jack Adams in Chicago.
A win is a win, but not all Cup runs are created equal. Truly dominant teams roll through the playoffs, while others might be a bounce here or there from falling short.
The case for the Penguins: The Penguins have faced elimination at least once in each of their Cup years. In those three post-seasons they were a loss away from the golf course in five different series. That includes this year against the Senators, when one shot in Game 7 overtime would have sent them home.
The case for the Blackhawks: The Blackhawks have only faced elimination in two series during their Cup runs, but that includes having to win three straight in 2013 against the Red Wings, a series that also ended in Game 7 overtime.
Edge: Blackhawks. If either one of these teams loses one of those elimination games, we’re having a different conversation today. Of course, they didn’t lose, so here we are.
Having A Player Who Is Often Described As The Best In The World
Having lots of stars is nice, but who can lay claim to having the best of the best?
The case for the Penguins: Have Sidney Crosby, who is often described as being the best hockey player in the world.
The case for the Blackhawks: Have Jonathan Toews, who is often described as being the best hockey player in the world.
Having A Player Who Actually Is The Best In The World
Having lots of narratives is nice, but who are we kidding?
The case for the Penguins: Crosby’s been the best for the last decade, and all the talk about Toews (or Drew Doughty or Carey Price or whoever else) is just bored sportswriters trying to be contrarians where there’s no need to be.
The case for the Blackhawks: Do not have Crosby.
Edge: Penguins. Seriously, we need to stop doing this.
We may as well end on this, if only to get out ahead of an objection that Blackhawks fans are sure to raise.
The case for the Penguins: In the immortal words of Brian Burke: “What’s the Pittsburgh model? They got a lottery. They won a goddamn lottery and they got the best player in the game.” You can’t tell the full story of the cap-era Penguins without mentioning how it all began – with some lucky ping pong balls that landed them Crosby. The 2005 league-wide lottery, a byproduct of the wiped-out season, changed the course of league history. You can give the Penguins all the credit you want for what they’ve built over the last dozen years, but a big part of it really did come down to sheer luck.
The case for the Blackhawks: Chicago has had some lottery luck of their own; they jumped four spots by winning the 2007 lottery, which landed them Kane and probably stands as one of the biggest wins in traditional draft lottery history. And while there were no ping pong balls involved, they had Toews fall to them in 2006 because the Penguins grabbed Jordan Staal instead. Luck comes in different forms.
Edge: Blackhawks. The Penguins drafting Toews in 2006 to play behind Crosby and Malkin is one of the most horrifying “what if” scenarios in recent history.
And The Winner Is…
The case for the Penguins: They’ve been slightly better in the regular season and significantly better in the playoffs. Their stretch as a Cup contender has been longer, their best players have been better, and they pulled off the back-to-back wins that Chicago couldn’t.
The case for the Blackhawks: Their peak was slightly higher, the organization has been more stable, and they did it all without threatening to move or needing to win a 30-team lottery to get the best player in the world.
Edge: Penguins. Sorry, Chicago, but there’s a new king of the NHL’s cap-era castle. (At least until the Blackhawks win Cup No. 4 next spring.)