The Greatest Teams of All Time
Copyright Iain Fyffe, 2002
The most thorough discussion of teams possibly deserving nomination as the greatest of all time is in Klein and Reif's Hockey Compendium. They base their conclusion that the 1929/30 Bruins are the greatest of all time on the team's .875 winning percentage, which is the highest of any team playing the minimum number of games.
There are, of course, two problems with basing the analysis solely on winning percentage. For one, an artificial games limit has to be introduced, to keep those 8-0-0 Montreal Victorias of 1898 and 10-0-0 Montreal Wanderers of 1907 from dominating the list. If we could avoid artificial restrictions like these, we could improve the analysis substantially. As it stands, these teams have no chance of being considered, no matter how great they may have been.
In addition, using winning percentage alone ignores the league context. That is, how good are the other teams in the league? Are there a few weak sisters to beat up on, or is parity the order of the day? Obviously, the greater the parity in the league as a whole, the more difficult it is to run up a high winning percentage. You don't get those cheap points; you have to fight for each win.
Therefore the analysis should be based on the degree by which a team dominates the competition, and the range of quality of said competition. One method to do this is explained below, by way of example.
Let's examine the top two teams by Klein and Reif's analysis. The Boston Bruins of 1929/30 played in a league where the standard deviation of winning percentage was .188, which is fairly high for the era. Boston's winning percentage of .875 is .375 higher than the average (which is .500), or 1.99 standard deviations above the mean (.375 divided by .188). This is called a z-score, and this is what I will base my analysis on. It encompasses both how far above the competition a team was, and how much variation in quality there was between teams. Boston's Winning Percentage Z-Score (WPZS) is therefore 1.99, which is very impressive, but as we'll see, not the best of all time.
The 1943/44 Montreal Canadiens, rated #2 by Klein and Reif, had an .830 winning percentage in a league that a had a standard deviation of winning percentage of .215 (high due to the disparity in talent caused by the war). There was less parity in this league-year than in 1929/30. Montreal's WPZS is 1.53, which while quite high is nowhere near the best of all time.
This means that, relatively speaking, Montreal had a greater benefit of weaker teams to play against than Boston did. By analyzing teams in this way, we consider both the quality of the league and we remove the need for any arbitrary restrictions. Below is the list of the top 48 teams of all time (all those with a WPZS of 1.50 or greater), from among the NHL and its predecessors, as well as the PCHA and WCHL/WHL, and the WHA.
The surprises start at the very top. The greatest team of all time, by this analysis, is the 1995/96 Detroit Red Wings. Their .799 winning percentage had them #7 on Klein and Reif's list. But the standard deviation that year was a mere .116, quite low for the era. Other than Detroit, the best winning percentage was .634. 19 of the 26 teams were between .400 and .600. Parity was the rule, yet Detroit was able to completely dominate the league. Their 2.58 WPZS is far and away the best of all time.
The next two spots come from two teams from the same season. The epic battle between Calgary and Montreal in 1988/89 is revealed to be of truly historic proportions. Other than these two teams, no team had a winning percentage of greater than .575, or less than .381. The parity this year was amazing; the standard deviation was only .100. Calgary's percentage was .731; Montreal's was .719. While both teams miss Klein and Reif's top 20, they're #2 and #3 here. Never has there been two teams which stood futher above the rest of the league.
Spot #4 is the 1976/77 Canadiens. Montreal's 1970's dynasty also makes appearances at #9, #16, #19, and #26. That's a hell of a decade, and it's no surprise that it shows up here.
Two more recent Red Wings sides take the 5 and 7 spots, with the Dallas South Stars outstanding 1998/99 campaign sandwiched in between. The great Bruins of 1929/30, ranked #1 by Klein and Reif, finally appear at #8.
If I were to ask you which Flyers teams was the best in their history, I doubt you would answer "the 1979/80 edition, of course!" But here they are in a tie for 9th with the best the Oilers have to offer, the 1985/86 team. Another 1980's Flyers squad (1984/85) appears at #22, well above the their best of the 1970's (1973/74), which comes in at a tie for #40. 80's Oilers teams also appear at #18, #36, #42, and #45. Not quite the 1970's Canadiens, but not bad.
The highest-ranked team of the pre-NHL era turns out to be the 1912/13 Quebec Bulldogs. In a league where the five other teams had records ranging from 10-10-0 to 7-13-0, Quebec went 16-4-0 to dominate the field.
The Houston Aeros were the WHA's greatest team, no surprise, claiming spots 13, 34, and 38. No other WHA club appears on the list.
Montreal's other great dynasty shows up a few times as well. 1958/59 is #18, 1955/56 is #25, 1957/58 is #28, and 1959/60 is #46. This is probably less impressive than the 1980's Oilers, but more than the Islanders teams which show up at #14, #23, and #42.
The Bruins of the early 70's don't show as well as you might expect, because they played in an expansion era. They appear "only" at #16, #24 and #32. The original Senators also appear thrice, at #25, #34 and #40, the last two from their pre-NHL days.
Finally we have the two perfect clubs mentioned before. Because these teams played in eras notable for their lack of parity, their 1.000 winning percentages are knocked down quite a bit on this list. The 1898 Victorias stand in a tie at #36, while the Wanderers show at #38. These teams (as well as the 1910/11 Senators at #40) were completely blocked out of Klein and Reif's list due to the artificial games restriction. Here, they get a fair shot.
The complete list follows:
|1.||Detroit Red Wings||1995/96||NHL||.799||2.58|
|5.||Detroit Red Wings||1994/95||NHL||.729||2.08|
|7.||Detroit Red Wings||2001/02||NHL||.707||2.02|
|14.||New York Islanders||1981/82||NHL||.738||1.92|
|23.||New York Islanders||1978/79||NHL||.725||1.72|
|42.||New York Islanders||1980/81||NHL||.688||1.53|
For those interested in this sort of thing, here is the distribution of the top 48 seasons of all time: Montreal Canadiens 14; Boston Bruins and Edmonton Oilers, 5; Detroit Red Wings, Houston Aeros, New York Islanders, Ottawa Senators (first edition) and Philadelphia Flyers, 3; Quebec Nordiques/Colorado Avalanche 2; Buffalo Sabres, Calgary Flames, Dallas Stars, Montreal Victorias, Montreal Wanderers, Quebec Bulldogs, St.Louis Blues 1. Notably, half of the Original Six teams (Rangers, Chicago, and Toronto) fail to take a single spot, while the Habs have 29% of the top 48 to themselves.