PHT Power Rankings: Best salary cap era teams to not win Stanley Cup

Adam Gretz
NBC Sports

It is the summer and with no games being played at the moment it is awfully difficult to rank the NHL’s 31 teams on a weekly basis. So the PHT Power Rankings will spend the next month taking a look back at some of the best (and worst) developments in the NHL, both past and present. Best trades. Worst trades. Best all-time teams. Any other random things we feel like ranking. This week we look step into the present and look at the best trades that have been made (so far) this summer.

For better or worse the success or failure of teams in the major North American sports is defined almost entirely by what they do in the playoffs. It is not always fair because it puts all of the emphasis on what happens in a small sampling of games where anything from injuries, to bad luck, to one poorly timed bad game can turn things completely upside down.

Sometimes the best team in a given season is not the one that is holding the trophy at the end of the playoffs.

Sometimes there is still a lot to be said for being one of the best teams over an 82-game schedule, no matter what does or does not happen in the playoffs.

This week’s power rankings is about teams that might fall into that group as we look back at the best teams in the salary cap era to not win the Stanley Cup.

1. 2005-06 Detroit Red Wings. This Red Wings team was absolutely insane both in terms of its roster and what it accomplished on the ice during the regular season.

On an individual level Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk were just entering the prime of their careers. Nick Lidstrom won his third Norris Trophy. Brendan Shanahan was a 40-goal scorer at the age of 37. Eight different players scored at least 20 goals while Steve Yzerman, at the age of 40, scored 14 in only 61 games. On a team level, they scored 301 goals (one of only three teams to score at least 300 goals in a single season in the salary cap era) and won 58 games, the fourth-most in NHL history. Before you start screaming about shootout wins, only four of those wins came in the shootout, so even if you exclude those four games (dropping the win total to 54 regulation/overtime wins) it still would have been a top-five total in league history in the pre-shootout era.

They were amazing.

The only thing this team did not have: Great goaltending, and that played a pretty significant factor in them going out in in the first round to the No. 8 seeded Edmonton Oilers, who were just beginning a rather stunning and unexpected run to the Stanley Cup Final.

2. 2009-10 Washington Capitals. If we really wanted to we could probably throw three or four Capitals teams on this list (like the three teams that won the Presidents’ Trophy), but of all the Capitals teams that did not win the Stanley Cup in the Alex Ovechkin era this team was by far the best. I am not even a Capitals fan and it makes me irrationally angry that they did not win it all. Not only because they were absolutely good enough to win it all, but because of what not winning in this season did to the franchise — and the narrative surrounding Ovechkin’s career — in the coming years.

This Capitals team just flat out steamrolled teams during the regular season, winning 54 games (only losing 15 in regulation) and scoring 313 goals, the most of any team in the cap era. What makes that 313 total so outrageous is that they are one of only three teams to score at least 300 goals in this era (the Red Wings team listed above being one of the others), and one of only four to score more than 290. The other three teams to top the 290 mark did it during the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons coming right out of the lockout when goal-scoring briefly skyrocketed.

Their goal total in this season was 45 more than the next closest team (the Vancouver Canucks, who scored 268). That gap between the Capitals and Canucks was the same as the gap between the Canucks in the second spot and the Red Wings … who were 14th in the league in goals. This Capitals team was scoring goals like it was 1985 in an era where everyone else was reverting back to the dead-puck era.

Then they lost in the first-round to the Montreal Canadiens, which began that multiple-season process where too many people (including the Capitals) decided a 54-win team that scored nearly 50 more goals than every other team in the league was doing something wrong and had to change, shifting way too far in the opposite direction and probably setting the franchise back several years.

What makes the first-round exit even more frustrating is that they were the better team, only to lose because Jaroslav Halak just so happened play the three best games of his life in Games 5-6-7 of the series. If Halak was anything other than superhuman in just one of those three games the Capitals easily move on. It was all very stupid.

3. 2008-09 Detroit Red WingsThe 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings were a force. They won the Presidents’ Trophy with the league’s best record, then dominated every team they faced in the playoffs, including a really good Pittsburgh Penguins team in the Stanley Cup Final that, at times, looked like it didn’t even belong on the same ice as the Red Wings (Game 1 and 2 in particular were laughably one-sided in Detroit’s favor).

What did Detroit do the following offseason? They just brought back almost the exact same roster, and then added to it by signing Marian Hossa (one of the best players on the Pittsburgh team that it had beaten in the previous year’s Final) to a one-year contract.

With Zetterberg, Datsyuk, and Hossa the Red Wings had three of the five best two-way forwards in the NHL, the league’s best defense pairing in Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski, and a bunch of damn good players throughout the lineup (Johan Franzen, Valterri Filppula, Jiri Hudler, Niklas Kronwall, Tomas Holmstrom) that made the roster incredibly intimidating.

On paper and on the ice this team was stacked, and they had the results to back it all up, finishing with one of the best records in the league (112 points, third best) and obliterating the Western Conference in the playoffs with a 12-3 record. The only team that gave them a fight was Anaheim in the second round.

Their quest for a second consecutive title, however, came up just short in the Stanley Cup Final rematch against the Penguins when they lost Games 6 and 7, with the latter ending with Marc-Andre Fleury‘s buzzer-beating save on Lidstrom.

4. 2005-06/2006-07 Buffalo Sabres. Am I cheating here a little by including both seasons? Maybe. But they are both pretty much carbon copies in how they turned out.

The Sabres were one of the NHL’s most exciting teams coming out of the 2004-05 lockout and had assembled a fast, high-powered offense led by Chris Drury, Danny Briere, Thomas Vanek, Maxim Afinogenov, and Jason Pominville that was a ton of fun to watch. They won 105 regular season games between the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons (second only to the Red Wings during that stretch) and found themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals in both seasons, only to lose both times.

The 2005-06 campaign was probably the most devastating because that series went all the way to a Game 7 — a Game 7 where the Sabres went into the third period with a 2-1 lead before self-destructing over the final 19 minutes, allowing three consecutive goals to a Hurricanes team that would go on to win its first Stanley Cup.

5. 2017-18 Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning have had quite a few excellent teams in the cap era, reaching the Stanley Cup Final once and the Eastern Conference Final three other times.

The best of those teams was probably the one they put on the ice this past season. How good were they?

They finished with 117 total points in the standings thanks to a roster that boasted…

  • Two of the top-offensive players in the league (including the league’s third-leading scorer in Nikita Kucherov) as part of a ridiculously deep offensive team that scored 17 more goals than any other team in the league.

  • The Norris Trophy winner in Victor Hedman.

  • A Vezina Trophy finalist in Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Extremely impressive roster and tremendous results.

Unfortunately for the Lightning it was yet another disappointing ending as they let a 3-2 series lead in the Eastern Conference Final slip away, capped off with a blowout loss in Game 7 at home to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals.

It was the third time in four years they were a part of the NHL’s Final Four and allowed a series lead to slip away.

[Related: How the Lightning keep coming up just short]

6. 2013-14 Boston Bruins. The Bruins had an incredible run between 2010 and 2014 where they played in the Stanley Cup Final twice (winning one) and won the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s best regular season team.

The 2013-14 team was the Presidents’ Trophy winning team, finishing with 54 wins and coming back strong after a heartbreaking Stanley Cup Final loss the previous season.

This particular era of Bruins hockey was highlighted by suffocating defensive play and outstanding goaltending, with this particular team being the most dominant of them all in that area. During this season Bruins allowed just 2.09 goals per game and had two goalies (Tuukka Rask and Chad Johnson) appear in at least 25 games and finish with a save percentage above .925.

While they were shutting teams down defensively, they also averaged more than 3.15 goals per game and were the third highest scoring team in the league complete with six different 50-point forwards (and a seventh, Carl Soderberg, that had 48 points in only 73 games).

Their run came to an end, however, in the second round against their arch rivals in Montreal, blowing a 3-2 series lead when their offense dried up, scoring just one goal (total) in Games 6 and 7.

7. 2010-11/2011-12 Vancouver Canucks. Like the Sabres up above we are combing these two because, well, they were just so similar in each season.

Today we may know the Canucks as a bumbling franchise haphazardly stumbling along in some kind of a rebuild that may or may not have much of a direction.

But there was a time — not that long ago! — that they were one of the elite teams in the league, winning the Presidents’ Trophy in back-to-back years in 2010-11 and 2011-12, with the former going all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final only to lose in Game 7 to the Bruins. They came back the next season and finished with the best record once again, only to then be easily dismissed in the first-round by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.

The foundation of these teams were Henrik and Daniel Sedin at the top of the lineup, and an incredible goaltending duo in Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider. The Sedins were especially dominant during this stretch with Daniel winning the Art Ross trophy during the 2010-11 season, while they were both among the top-four point producers in the league during the two-year stretch.

Things rapidly fell apart for the Canucks after the 2011-12 season. The Sedins started to slow down, Schneider and Luongo were eventually traded in separate deals, while the team has made the playoffs just twice since then and has not made it out of the first round.

8. 2008-09 San Jose Sharks. Even though the Joe ThorntonPatrick Marleau era never produced a Stanley Cup for the Sharks, it was still an incredible run when they were together prior to Marleau’s exit to Toronto.

The 2008-09 season was the franchise’s high point (at least as far as regular season performance goes) as the Sharks finished with the best record in the league.

Thornton and Marleau were still close to being point-per-game players at the top of the lineup, while the front office strengthened the defense prior to the season by trading for Dan Boyle and signing Rob Blake to add to a blue line that already had Christian Ehrhoff and a young Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

The result was a 117-point regular season, a total that only four teams in the cap era have topped (the 2005-06 Red Wings, and three different Capitals teams).

Their postseason run ended in six games at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks.

9. 2011-12 Pittsburgh Penguins. In between their back-to-back Stanley Cup Final appearances in 2008 and 2009, and their back-to-back Stanley Cup wins in 2016 and 2017, the Pittsburgh Penguins had a lot of early and disappointing exits in the playoffs. A lot of those teams were unfairly labeled as “underachieving” or having missed an opportunity to win another championship when the reality is a lot of them just simply weren’t good enough beyond their top couple of stars.

Of all the Penguins teams between 2009 and 2016 that didn’t win the Stanley Cup, this is the one you can look at and fairly say “they missed an opportunity” or underachieved.

This team, when healthy, was absolutely loaded and should have gone further in the playoffs.

By the end of the season Sidney Crosby was back healthy after his concussion/neck issues and was at the height of his power as an offensive player, and along with Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal gave the team an unmatched trio of centers down the middle. When all three were in the lineup they were all but unstoppable. On top of that they had a 40-goal scorer in James Neal on the wing, a lethal power play, and plenty of depth at forward. They closed out the regular season on an 18-4-2 run and looked to be the favorites to win the Stanley Cup.

Their biggest flaw: A collectively short fuse that saw them fly off the handle and melt down when someone punched them in the face. This was on display in their first-round series loss to the Philadelphia Flyers (a total gong show of a series), as well as the bad version of Marc-Andre Fleury in the playoffs when he played what was perhaps the worst playoff series of his life.

10. 2005-06 Ottawa Senators. Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s the Ottawa Senators had a lot of really good teams that were loaded with talent. Even though the 2006-07 team ended up being the only one of them to reach the Stanley Cup Final, the 2005-06 team may have been the best. 

Daniel Aldredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza were all 90-point scorers (with Spezza doing it in only 68 games), Zdeno Chara was leading the defense in his final season with the team before leaving in free agency after the season, and Dominik Hasek played his one season with the team.

Hasek’s situation is the great “what if” here.

Even though he was 41 years old he was still having an outstanding season with a .925 save percentage (among the best in the NHL) before suffering an injury as a member of the Czech Olympic team at the 2006 games in Turin. That injury sidelined him for the remainder of the season, leaving rookie Ray Emery as the Senators’ primary goalie the rest of the way. While Emery played well in the regular season and in the first-round of the playoffs against the Tampa Bay Lightning, he struggled in the second round against the one of the aforementioned Sabres teams, resulting in a five-game loss. With a healthy Hasek this may have been a team capable of winning it all.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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