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Combing through history: The top NHL franchises of all time

By Wilson Moore, SportsEngine, 01/04/21, 11:45AM MST

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Hub exclusive: The league, which has been in existence for more than 100 years, features a handful of standout teams that have dominated the opposition for large stretches of time.

What’s the greatest franchise in NHL history? 

There’s a lot to take into consideration. The league has been in existence for more than 100 years, so there’s a great deal of history to sift through, with the Original Six franchises (Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, New York Rangers and Toronto were the only NHL teams from the 1942-43 season until 1967 when six expansion teams were added) getting a head start in a league which will soon boast 32 teams with the upstart Seattle Kraken slated to join the Western Conference beginning with the 2021-22 season.

The list below takes into consideration the number of championships a franchise has won, in addition to overall team consistency for extended periods of time, a team’s history of drafting and developing great players, general mystique, and more. 

Without further ado, here are Colorado Hockey Hub’s top five NHL franchises of all time:

5. Boston Bruins

The Bruins may boast the most balanced combination of history and contemporary success. Bobby Orr is by most measures the best defenseman of all time. One of the first blueliners to be a threat to score, he led Boston to two Stanley Cups in the early 1970s. The Bruins have experienced a resurgence in the last 10 years, winning a championship in 2011 (their sixth) under coach Claude Julien and making it back to the final as recently as 2019, losing in seven games to the St. Louis Blues.

4. Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings bring a resume of steadfast consistency to the table. They’ve won at least one Stanley Cup in each of five decades and 11 of them total (third-most all time) — their first came in 1936 and their most recent title came in 2008. Gordie Howe, who played for Detroit from 1946 to 1971, has the most points (1,809) in franchise history. The Wings’ leading single-season scorer, Steve Yzerman, who is now the team's general manager, set the mark in 1989 with 155 points and retired in 2006. Longtime captain defenseman Nicklas Lidström had a 20-year career — all with the Red Wings. Star players of the franchise have tended to stay in the Motor City for the long haul.

3. Toronto Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs don’t have the contemporary resume of some of the other teams this list — their last Stanley Cup-winning season came in 1967 — but their accomplishments from the NHL’s early days are more than enough to justify their spot on this list. Toronto won 13 championships, second-most all time, in the first 50 years of the NHL’s existence. The Leafs also have more players in the Hockey Hall of Fame than any other franchise with 62.

2. Chicago Blackhawks

The Blackhawks are in an odd position: they’ve been around since the beginning of the NHL, but the majority of their success has come only recently. For a long time, Chicago was a forgotten team of a previous era, winning two championships in the 1930s before spending much of the next 70 years in the purgatory of being good enough to make the playoffs but not much more than that. But in 2010, a Stanley Cup victory over the Philadelphia Flyers in six games was the Blackhawks' first since 1961, and second since the days of the Original Six. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews have powered the closest thing to a dynasty in the salary cap era, spearheading the 'Hawks to three league championships in six years, raising Chicago's Stanley Cup tally to six.

1. Montreal Canadiens

You weren’t expecting another team in this spot, were you? The Habs have hoisted the Stanley Cup 24 times — the most all time by a margin of 11. The Canadiens have dominated for large stretches, winning five straight titles from 1956-60 and four consecutive from 1976-79. The 1976-77 Canadiens are points-wise the greatest single-season team of all time with 132 points, and their team that season swept Boston to win the Stanley Cup Final. You can ding them for a lack of recent success — their last championship was in 1993 — but the sheer volume of their success makes it tough to argue they’re not the greatest franchise of all time.

Honorable mentions

 

Pittsburgh Penguins

 

Much of the Penguins’ justification for being here is the standout talent the team has boasted over the last 35 years. Save for one four-year stretch in the early 2000s, the Penguins have had at least one of Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr or Sidney Crosby on their roster since 1984. They’ve also captured five Stanley Cups (the first coming in 1991) in that stretch and made the playoffs 26 times, easily making the Penguins the most successful of the six teams added to the NHL via the 1967 league expansion. When Pittsburgh defeated the Red Wings in seven games in the 2009 Stanley Cup Final, the Penguins became the first North American team in any sport to win Game 7 on the road since 1979.

 

Colorado Avalanche

 

The teams in the top five are all Original Six franchises. While there’s a lot to take into consideration regarding what makes a team great, the reality is that simply having enough time to accomplish milestones and win titles is a big factor. So with that in mind, it’s hard for Colorado, which has had the Avs in their current iteration since 1995, to compete with the legacy of franchises that have been playing against each other since the 1940s. But the Avalanche deserve credit for winning two Stanley Cups and having made the playoffs 17 times in a 25-year stretch since relocating from Quebec (the Quebec Nordiques were an NHL team from the 1979-80 season until 1995 and never won a title).

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