The “Great One” thinks the 1986-87 Edmonton Oilers are the greatest team he played on, but there’s no shortage of debate over whether that’s the best team of all-time.
Four of Wayne Gretzky’s 1980s Oilers dynasty teams are among the 20 “Greatest NHL teams” as voted by fans during the league’s 100th anniversary. Also among the top 20 are three teams from the Montreal Canadiens’ 1970s run and three from the New York Islanders’ 1980s stretch when each dynasty captured four Stanley Cup titles in a row before passing the torch to Edmonton.
Six-time Cup-winning defenseman Kevin Lowe said he and Gretzky agreed the 1987 Oilers were the best of the bunch of teams that filled the rafters in Edmonton with blue, white and orange banners during one of the finest eras of hockey dominance, even though it took seven games to beat the Philadelphia Flyers in the final.
“When (Kent) Nilsson got here, I think we went 10-1 in the regular season,” Lowe said. “There was just so much offense. I don’t know if that was statistically our best Stanley Cup run as a team. It probably wasn’t because we went to seven with the Flyers. But Wayne and I both thought that that seemed like the best overall team.”
The 1983-84, ’84-85, ’86-87 and ’87-88 Oilers, ’75-76, ’76-77 and ’77-78 Canadiens, ’79-89, ’81-82 and ’82-83 Islanders, ’90-91, ’91-92 and 2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins, ’97-98 and ’01-02 Detroit Red Wings, ’69-70 Boston Bruins, ’88-89 Calgary Flames, ’93-94 New York Rangers, ’00-01 Colorado Avalanche and ’09-10 Chicago Blackhawks were voted the top 20 teams of all-time.
Some of that is thanks to Lowe.
“I’ve played it lots out of curiosity and trying to run up the votes for us,” said Lowe, who won the Cup five times with the Oilers and again with the ’94 Rangers.
Some of the older teams from the Original Six era like the 1952 Red Wings and 1967 Toronto Maple Leafs – that franchise’s most recent Stanley Cup winner – fell victim to younger voters skewing toward more-recent teams. As hard as it is to compare eras, the 1976-77 Canadiens, 1986-87 Oilers and 2001-02 Red Wings could easily duke it out for the greatest in the league’s first 100 years.
“It’s hard to pick one or the other,” said the legendary Scotty Bowman, who coached the Canadiens’ `70s dynasty, the ’91-92 Penguins and the Red Wings to give him a hand in seven of the top 20 teams. “I guess you could make a (case) for Hall of Fame players, wins, losses, points, goal spread.”
Montreal’s ’76-77 team won 39 of its final 40 regular-season games, still holds the record for most points with 132, outscored opponents by 216 goals and went 12-2 in the playoffs on the way to the second of four consecutive championships.
“I would stack our `76 team up against anybody in any era,” Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson said. “We had everything. If you wanted to play tough, we could play tough. If you wanted to play fast, we could play fast. If you wanted to play tight, we were pretty good.”
Those Canadiens stack up in Hall of Famers against the ’01-02 Red Wings, who have nine with Pavel Datsyuk not yet eligible. The `70s Canadiens and `80s Oilers and Islanders teams were also star-studded with the goaltenders to keep up in an era of high-scoring hockey.
“Grant Fuhr was unbelievable, Billy Smith was unbelievable, obviously Kenny Dryden unbelievable,” former Flyers forward Bob Kelley said. “It starts in the pipes and you work your way out from there.”
That’s true in any era.