We knew coming into this season that the Lightning had a chance to be special. Just a dazzling collection of talent at every position and, despite a few clunky contracts, very little to be nervous about.
They lost in the Conference Finals last year, because it happens, and they even missed the playoffs two seasons ago, mainly because of injuries. But there was little doubt that this wouldn’t be one of the best teams in the league. Probably the favorite for the Presidents’ Trophy, if we’re being honest.
Instead, they ended up becoming the best of all time. They won 60 games in an era where they couldn’t spend more than any other team and where the league’s much-talked-about parity means that even great teams usually lose like 40 percent of their games. Much like baseball, where no one ever wins more than 105 games or so, you can usually say NHL teams are going to win 30, lose 30, and have the rest of the season shake out because of what you do with the other 22.
The Lightning aren’t going to come close to losing 30. Last night was their 79th game and, somehow, only their 14th regulation loss. And that’s with this group really not having much to play for over the last month other than, I guess, a shot at history. They’re now the first team since the almighty Detroit Red Wings of 1995-96 — with a galaxy of future Hall of Famers — and the 1976-77 Canadiens as the only teams to ever clear 60 wins.
Those who do not think this is the best team of all time (largely made up of those over 40) will say, “Well, they had the benefit of the shootout and 3-on-3 overtime.” As though the Wings and Habs of earlier eras didn’t enjoy immense advantages that were likely just as impactful on their win-loss totals as Tampa’s 7-3 OT record and 6-1 shootout run.
Those Red Wings teams had the benefit of not playing in a salary-capped league — and also playing some really underfunded clubs, recent expansion teams, etc., a lot more than they do now, since there were five fewer teams. Five clubs that year finished with fewer than 27 wins. The Wings played them a combined 18 times, going 14-2-2 with a plus-36 goal difference. And as to the point above about all those HHOF types on the roster: That didn’t come cheap. They had several of the highest-paid players in the league, including three of the top 13 (Fedorov eighth, Yzerman 12th, Coffey 13th), and one imagines the Little Caesar’s money faucet didn’t shut off after they got done paying Mike Vernon his seventh-highest salary among goalies either.
Not that they should have been shy about spending like this, because if the rules let you do what you want in that way, do what you want. But let’s not pretend things were on anything resembling a level playing field just because games ended in ties sometimes.
Similarly, that 60-win Habs team that knocked down the Presidents’ Trophy and the Stanley Cup (while those 62-win Wings only did the former), had it even easier. Sure, only 80 games in those days, but also only 17 other teams, 10 of which finished below .500. God, this team got to play the Cleveland Barons at a time when the league was expanding rapidly and free agency effectively didn’t exist. They also had the benefit of being able to crib from the Soviet style of play that dominated the world but was often a mystery to teams of the time unless you saw it up close, which the Habs got to because of scheduled exhibitions.
This was an era when dynasties didn’t just exist; they were the norm. Apart from Bobby Orr’s Bruins in 1970 and ’72, every team that won the Cup between 1954 and ’86 won it more than once in a row. This was the opposite of parity, and you could put the best players on one team and control them until they all retired at 32 because they smoked 14 packs a day. So yeah they only lost eight games, but they had right of first refusal on every French Canadian player coming into the league and had hoovered up talent through an unfair system for decades.
As for the Lightning, well, they can still tie Detroit’s record of 62 wins, and at a time when there’s more talent being distributed more evenly than ever throughout the league. There’s more travel than ever. Everyone’s smarter, in better shape, all that stuff. Teams actively play to get to overtime and the shootout just to get the loser point. Even the absolute worst teams in the league aren’t as bad as the worst the Red Wings or Canadiens would have faced. It hasn’t much mattered.
They can’t hit 132, and whether they hit or miss 62 wins, this Lightning team is the best ever assembled. They just gotta win a Cup, I guess.
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