It’s relatively easy to be dominant when there’s only five other teams, but kind of hard when there’s 29 others in a hard-cap league. So when everything is made relative using odds of winning, where do the Chicago Blackhawks fit among the all-time greats?
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman stood there at center ice on Monday night, assuming his usual pose beside the Stanley Cup and made a very bold statement. “Well Chicago, that’s three Cups in six seasons, I’d say you have a dynasty,” he said to more than 20,000 rabid Blackhawks fans, so happy with another title they almost forgot to shower Bettman with the boos he’s accustomed to during the ceremony. That remark immediately leads to a lot of debate amongst hockey fans, but there’s very little argument that he’s wrong. The Hawks are a modern-day dynasty. The word “dynasty” in a sports context will always be subjective. What it implies is a continued dominance over a long stretch of time, and really, dominance is sort of relative to the competition. It’s relatively easy to be dominant when there’s only five other teams, but kind of hard when there’s 29 others in a hard-cap league. Looking at the current competitive balance of the league and what Chicago has done against it in the Kane-Toews era, it’s difficult to call it anything but dominance.
So while some argue whether the Blackhawks qualify at all, the better question is where do they rank among past dynasties? If the Blackhawks don’t stack up, maybe the dynasty talk is in fact premature. What makes a run truly impressive isn’t just Cups-per-year or Cup streaks, it’s about how challenging they were to win. That’s why the biggest factor is the competitive climate of the league during a given season. To figure that out I separated the playoff teams in each season into two categories based on goal-differential: elite teams (top 15 percent of teams, i.e. one in a six-team league and five in a 30-team league) and the field (the other playoff teams). From there I took the average of both groups over a six-year period and figured out how likely an elite team would win the Cup or be one of the teams a Stanley Cup winner has to face on their way to the Cup based on the prior 20 seasons. Then I combined those two facts to get a rough estimate of an “average” Cup winner and their opponents’ true talent win percentage during every season since the start of the Original Six era. It’s a lot to comprehend, so here’s a visualization of the results with expansion years highlighted.
It’s immediately clear the effect that expanding the league plays on league-wide parity. The gap between the Cup winners and the rest of the group has never been tighter than it is right now. Before expanding to 30 teams, an elite team didn’t usually face another one until Round 3 or the final. Sometimes, they didn’t have to face one at all. Now, it’s become more commonplace to have two elite teams face off in the first round. The gap between a team eliminated in Round 1 and the eventual Stanley Cup winner has shrunk from almost 15 win percentage points in 1979 to just less than five percent now. For the Blackhawks, that meant facing a team that’s close to their equal four times on the way to the Cup while a team from the Original Six era essentially had two cake-walks en route to a championship. So just how hard is it to win the Stanley Cup right now? The odds for the average elite team is about 10-1 and even if a team can keep that up every year, for six years, it’s more likely that they
win the Cup.
Really, those old-timers had it easy. It’s about four-to-five times harder to win the Cup now then it was when the league had only six teams and about two-to-three times harder than it was in the '70s and '80s. In context, what the Blackhawks have done is really much more impressive than it’s being given credit for. Not only do they deserve recognition as a dynasty, they’re amongst the league’s greatest.
The Hockey Hall of Fame officially recognizes nine distinct dynasties, but I’ve altered them to their most impressive component (i.e. the three-peat by the '40s Leafs is more impressive than their 4-in-5 or 5-in-7). I’ve also omitted Ottawa in the '20s and Detroit in the '50s, combined Montreal’s run in the '60s and '70s, and added Detroit in the late '90s to the list.
Based on how difficult it is to win a championship during specific seasons, the results should come as no surprise. The Hawks run is obviously not on par with the Oilers and Islanders teams of the '80s so that passes the smell-test. Ditto for the Montreal Canadiens team that won 10 of 15 Cups during the '60s and '70s. But it should be held in higher regard than the three dynasties during the Original Six era, which just aren’t that impressive considering the landscape of the league. Same thing goes for the similar 3-in-6 feat that the Red Wings pulled off just before the lockout. What this Hawks core has done over the past six seasons is just remarkable given the context of how it was accomplished. In an era where it’s hard for Stanley Cup champions to even make the playoffs the next season (looking at you, Los Angeles), the Blackhawks have been a force that’s feared across the league and the best this league has to offer. They’re a team other teams try to conquer or embody. They’re a team that never quits and always comes up big when it counts. But perhaps most importantly, they’re a true dynasty in a time where dynasties are nearly extinct, and they’re on one of the greatest championship runs in hockey history
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