November 03, 2009
(No, the first decade of the 21st century doesn't technically end until 2011. Save your bellyaching. But we've had nine NHL seasons and one stolen from us since 1999-2000, and Yahoo! Sports has decided it's time to rank the best and worst of the last "decade." Enjoy, and snark freely in the comments.)
Puck Daddy's Best & Worst of the Decade lists will run on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday through the end of 2009. (Yes, that includes holidays; cynical appraisal never sleeps.)
First off, know this: Immortality in the National Hockey League is not measured by the Prince of Wales or Clarence Campbell trophies for conference champions. We'll have a separate entry in our End-of-Decade Rankings for those elite teams that fell short of the ultimate prize.
But to determine the best NHL team of the 2000s, the field must be narrowed to the nine squads that had their names etched on the Stanley Cup during that time.
Yes, "Top 9," thanks to the lockout that killed the 2004-05 season. In fact, hockey is unlike any other sport that will be covered in Yahoo! Sports' "Best of the Decade" projects: The NHL was literally two different leagues before and after the work stoppage, from parity to economics to the very philosophy of how to build a winning team. That's reflected on several of our lists, including this one.
Here are the Top 9 NHL Teams of the Last Decade ...
9. 2005-06 Carolina Hurricanes
A Southeast Division champion with 112 points in the first regular season following the lockout, Peter Laviolette's group had four 30-goal scorers including Eric Staal's(notes) 45-goal, 100-point career year.
Outside of their star center, it was a solid but unspectacular team, and was carried through the postseason by rookie goalie Cam Ward's(notes) Conn Smythe performance (.2.14 GAA, .920 save percentage). Had the Buffalo Sabres not been missing four defensemen in Game 7, Carolina may not have advanced. Had Dwayne Roloson(notes) of the miracle Edmonton Oilers not suffered a knee injury in the Finals, Carolina may not have won the Cup.
But they did, they're here, and someone had to be ninth. Kudos to 'Canes management for figuring out how to win in NHL 2.0 before anyone else did.
8. 2003-04 Tampa Bay Lightning
In the last season before the lockout, the Bolts were division and conference regular-season champions (106 points), with a Hart Trophy winner in Marty St. Louis (38 goals, 94 points). Nikolai Khabibulin(notes) recorded five shutouts in the postseason, Brad Richards(notes) won the Conn and the Lightning rallied from a 3-2 deficit to the Western Conference No. 6-seeded Calgary Flames to win the Cup.
St. Louis, Richards, Vincent Lecavalier(notes), Cory Stillman(notes), Dan Boyle(notes), Dave Andreychuk ... this team had some players. Like the 'Canes, they struggled to the win the Cup; and as Martin Gelinas can attest, they also got their share of breaks. But the Lightning were a little better in a different era than the Carolina Cup team.
7. 2002-03 New Jersey Devils
This was the Pat Burns-coached Devils squad that went seven games with the Ducks in the Cup final. They were division champs with 108 points, good for second in the conference. This was a stifling defensive team in front of Martin Brodeur(notes), backstopped by the holy trinity of Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer(notes) and Brian Rafalski(notes).
A perfect example of a very good hockey team that probably wouldn't have hoisted the Cup under NHL 2.0 rules changes.
6. 2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins
After Dan Bylsma took the helm, this Penguins team was a force of nature, streaking to 99 points and fourth in the conference. They had 100-point seasons from Evgeni Malkin(notes) and Sidney Crosby(notes), who both continued their dominance in the postseason (36 points for Geno in a Conn Smythe effort, 31 for Sid). Marc-Andre Fleury(notes) also shut up the critics, once and for all.
A well-constructed team by GM Ray Shero that whose sum was greater than its parts. They get knocked down a few pegs here because it's as much about the journey to the Cup as winning the Cup, and the Penguins were middling until Bylsma captured lightning in a bottle. Plus, the five teams ahead of them were a little deeper.
5. 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings
An incredible regular season that saw the Wings win the Presidents' Trophy with 115 points ended with the team's second Stanley Cup of the decade. Henrik Zetterberg's(notes) 27-point playoff run, combined with shutdown defense, was subtly astonishing.
The question we know you're asking: Why is this team ranked ahead of a Penguins team that essentially defeated the same group the following season?
Top to bottom, this is a better team than the Penguins' squad that won the Cup, especially when you compare the blue lines. They were all a year younger, faster and more durable; and had the Chris Osgood(notes) that played in this run (14-4, 1.55 GAA) been the one who faced the Penguins in the rematch, we may have been talking about a third Detroit title in the 2000s.
4. 2006-07 Anaheim Ducks
Pacific Division champs with 110 points, it's amazing to look at all the bright, young offensive talent in the lineup below Teemu Selanne's(notes) ridiculous 48-goal, 46-assist season: Corey Perry(notes), Ryan Getzlaf(notes), Dustin Penner(notes), Chris Kunitz(notes), Andy McDonald(notes), Travis Moen(notes). But the backbone of the team was J.S. Gigeure in goal, and Chris Pronger(notes) and Conn Smythe winner Scott Niedermayer on defense.
A stout, truculent bunch that Brian Burke can wistfully reminisce about as his Maple Leafs enter their fifth decade without a Cup.
3. 1999-00 New Jersey Devils
This was arguably the best Devils team in franchise history, and yet it took a coaching change with eight games left in an already successful 103-point regular season to turn it into a champion. Lou Lamoriello flipped Robbie Ftorek for Larry Robinson, and the affable coach led the team through a wild postseason that included rallying from a 3-1 deficit to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Lindros-concussed conference finals and five overtimes in the final two games of their Stanley Cup win over the defending champion Dallas Stars.
What a lineup: They had Patrik Elias(notes), Scott Gomez(notes), Petr Sykora(notes), Jason Arnott(notes), Claude Lemieux(notes), Alex Mogilny, Bobby Holik(notes) and Randy McKay up front; Conn Smythe winner Stevens, Niedermayer, Rafalski, Ken Daneyko, Colin White(notes) and Vladimir Malakhov(notes) in front of Brodeur.
2. 2000-01 Colorado Avalanche
We said "arguably" in the last entry because some consider the 2000-01 Devils even better than the Cup champs, which makes this Avalanche team look all the more impressive in overcoming them in a seven-game finals.
Thanks to the media saturation and the unfortunate presence of his retired number in Denver, everyone remembers this as the Ray Bourque Cup team, but that's shortchanging the juggernaut. It had 118 points to win its division and the President's Trophy, in a year that saw Joe Sakic(notes) win the Hart and the Pearson with a 118-point campaign.
The assemblage of talent on this roster, deftly managed by Bob Hartley, was extraordinary: Sakic, Peter Forsberg(notes) (back when he'd give you 73 games), Milan Hejduk(notes), Alex Tanguay(notes), Chris Drury(notes), Adam Deadmarsh, Bourque, Rob Blake(notes) and a slew of quality role players. Tying it all together was 35-year-old Patrick Roy, who had a 2.21 GAA in the regular season and a 1.70 with four shutouts in the playoffs.
A scary good team. Just not as scary as these guys ...
1. 2001-02 Detroit Red Wings
Unless you're one of those fans that blindly hates everything with a Winged Wheel, this one is indisputable. These Red Wings were a 116-point monster in the regular season that finished second in offense and defense; touting four 30-goal scorers in Brendan Shanahan(notes), Sergei Fedorov(notes), Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille, with Nicklas Lidstrom(notes) winning this second Norris Trophy as best defenseman. The grand master, Scotty Bowman, orchestrated it all from the bench.
As we mentioned in the opening, it's almost unfair to compare this traveling all-star team with any from the capped era. They won the Cup with a payroll around $65 million, and the roster read like one a kid with a video game would put together: Along with the five players mentioned earlier, there was Steve Yzerman, considered on the wane until he led the team in playoff scoring; Igor Larionov, Chris Chelios(notes), Tomas Holmstrom(notes) and Pavel Datsyuk(notes). Their foot soldiers were in their prime, too, like Darren McCarty(notes), Kris Draper(notes), Kirk Maltby(notes).
Back-stopping it all was 37-year-old Dominik Hasek(notes), who had a 2.17 GAA in the regular season and a 1.86 in the playoffs. How big-game was the Dominator? He had five shutouts in the regular season and six in the postseason.
The Wings teams in the 1990s that had Yzerman, Fedorov and Shanahan in their primes were a little better, but this 2001-02 Detroit team is clearly the best of the 2000s and one of the best of the last two decades. If you needed validation of that, visit the Hockey Hall of Fame in about 15 years and see how many players from this roster have entered into immortality.