by David Arkow and Danny Blumenthal
Two tickets have already been punched to the “Dynasty Bracket” Final Four: the 2014-2018 Golden State Warriors and the 1996-2000 New York Yankees. Now we move to some of the greatest NFL and NHL dynasties of the past 50 years to see who is the best. We use a combination of z scores and “dynasty points” to measure both regular season and postseason performance to create an overall dynasty score for our teams. Check out our overview article for a full explanation of the methodology or our NBA and MLB article to see those great dynasties as well.
Honorable MentionsThese NHL teams were excellent, but they competed at the same time as another even stronger dynasty:
- 1979-1983 New York Islanders (four straight Stanley Cups, but not as good as the 1970s Canadiens’ four straight or the 1980s Oilers’ four in five years)
- 1973-1977 Philadelphia Flyers (two Stanley Cups)
- 1998-2002 New Jersey Devils (two Stanley Cups)
Play-In Game: 2003-2008 Detroit Red Wings (#18) vs. 2012-2016 Chicago Blackhawks (#19)
This is the ultimate matchup of teams with some of the greatest playoff streaks. While this Blackhawks dynasty is not included in the streak, the franchise made the playoffs for 28 consecutive seasons (1970-1997). The Red Wings made it for 25 consecutive seasons (1990-2015). These would be records in the NFL, NBA, and MLB, but the Boston Bruins hold the NHL record with 29 straight playoff berths (1968-1996). The Blackhawks win this matchup because of their two Stanley Cups (as opposed to one for Detroit), and their higher peak in the 2012-13 season. That team had the third highest points percentages of all-time (.802). Granted that was a shortened 48-game season due to a lockout, but it is still dominant. In addition, the Blackhawks made the playoffs for nine consecutive seasons including the dynasty, putting them one spot ahead of the Red Wings as the best team from 2005-2015. The Blackhawks win this one in a Game 7 shootout.
Semifinal #1: 1974-1978 Montreal Canadiens (#2) vs. 2012-2016 Chicago Blackhawks (#19)
It is a sad farewell for the Blackhawks’ core of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, and Corey Crawford who played together in Chicago for a decade. But these 70s Canadiens were dominant on another level. This Montreal dynasty owns three of the five winningest NHL seasons , which is why they have the fifth-highest regular season score (98) of any five-year dynasty of all-time in our model. They also won four consecutive Stanley Cups, giving them the second-highest postseason score (88) in this bracket. They also had thirteen Hall of Famers come through the team, including some of the greatest players in NHL history: Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, and Ken Dryden. Only their predecessor dynasty, the 1955-59 Canadiens, has ever won more Stanley Cups in a row.
Semifinal #2: 1983-1987 Edmonton Oilers (#3) vs. 1993-1997 Detroit Red Wings (#10)
The 1995-1996 Red Wings share the record for most wins in a regular season (62, along with the recent 2018-2019 Tampa Bay Lightning). This Red Wings roster contained two of the greatest five Red Wings of all time, in Nicklas Lidstrom and Steve Yzerman. They appeared in three Stanley Cup finals (all of which were 4-0 sweeps) and won two of them. However, the team north of the border won four Stanley Cups and surpassed the Red Wings in both regular season (99) and postseason (84) performance. Edmonton advances to the NHL Region Finals.
NHL Region Finals:1974-1978 Montreal Canadiens (#2) vs. 1983-1987 Edmonton Oilers (#3)
Of course there has to be an all-Canadian team matchup in the NHL final. Montreal has a slightly higher Postseason Score (88 vs. 84), while the Oilers have a slightly higher Regular Season score (99 vs. 98), so we look at the rosters to break the tie. The Oilers have one thing that the Canadiens don’t, which is Wayne Gretzky — arguably the greatest hockey player of all-time. Gretzky won 9 MVPs, the most by any player in any Big 4 professional sport Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has 6 to lead the NBA, Barry Bonds* tops MLB with 7, and Peyton Manning’s 5 are the most in the NFL.
Interestingly for this Canada vs. Canada showdown, no Canadian hockey team has hoisted the Stanley Cup since the 1993 Montreal Canadiens. Seven Canadian teams play in the NHL. If all NHL teams were equally likely to win the Stanley Cup, we would expect around six Canadian champions since Montreal’s 1993 victory. As such, the binomial probability of no Canadian team winning the Cup over the last 26 seasons is quite small — only 0.1%.
Many think that the drought could end this season, as Canada will be guaranteed to have four playoff representatives from the “Scotia North” division because of Canadian coronavirus restrictions. Nevertheless, they are still the weakest division this year, with FiveThirtyEight’s model giving the teams in the division combined title odds of about 15%. The season will show if one of these two historic Candian franchises can bring the Stanley Cup north of the border, but Gretzky’s Oilers will represent the NHL and Canada in the Final Four.
Honorable MentionsWhile the following NFL dynasties were strong, they were not as dominant as another team from a similar era:
- 1971-1975 Miami Dolphins (perfect season in 1972, but only two Super Bowls to Pittsburgh’s three)
- 1986-1990 San Francisco 49ers (two Super Bowl wins, but overtaken by the 1990s Dallas Cowboys)
- 1975-1979 Dallas Cowboys (three Super Bowl trips, but fell to Pittsburgh twice)
- 1973-1977 Minnesota Vikings (three Super Bowl appearances, but lost all of them)
Play-In Game: 1975-1979 Pittsburgh Steelers (#13) vs. 1989-1993 Buffalo Bills (#16)
Despite seeming close, with these teams boasting similar scores for both regular season and playoff performance, this matchup is simple. The Steelers won three Super Bowls. The Bills lost four straight. With the Bills’ dramatic improvement this season, things could finally be looking up in Buffalo. But while Josh Allen and the Bills advanced to the AFC Championship game this year, snapping the Bills’ 25-year stretch without a playoff victory, their Super Bowl drought continues.
Semifinal #1: 2014-2018 New England Patriots (#6) vs. 1975-1979 Pittsburgh Steelers (#13)
With ten Hall of Famers on the team during their dynasty, the 1975-79 Pittsburgh Steelers had loads of talent. However, since free agency hadn’t been introduced into the NFL yet, Pittsburgh did not have to deal with the threat of losing their stars. The 2014-18 Patriots had no such luxury. Still, New England found a way to excel by swapping role players around Tom Brady. While both Pittsburgh and New England won three Super Bowls in four years, the fact that the Patriots did so in the era of salary caps and free agency makes their accomplishment more impressive.
Outside of the Super Bowl-winning seasons, the Patriots also played better. New England managed to make the Super Bowl in 2017, losing to the Philadelphia Eagles, while the Steelers lost before the title game in both 1976 and 1977. Some may argue that the Steelers are unfairly penalized by the five-year structure of the dynasties, since they also won a Super Bowl in the year before this dynasty. However, the shortened structure also hurts the Patriots. Given the additional obstacles of the salary cap era and their stronger postseason performance, the 2014-18 Patriots are the ones who win this matchup and advance to the regional final.
Semifinal #2: 2003-2007 New England Patriots (#9) vs. 1991-1995 Dallas Cowboys (#11)
The 1990s Cowboys took the throne from some other dynasties in our rankings — knocking out the 1980s San Francisco 49ers in 2 of 3 NFC Championship games, and then blowing out the Bills in back-to-back Super Bowls. Led by “The Triplets” of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin, the Cowboys and their high-flying offense won three Super Bowls in five years. In contrast, from 2003 to 2007, the Patriots only won two Super Bowls.
So why do these Patriots move on to the next round? Firstly, the 2003-07 Patriots boast the best regular season record (66-14) of any five-year dynasty in the Super Bowl Era. Meanwhile, the Cowboys rank only 22nd in our regular season rankings. In addition, the Patriots’ versatility is significant. While their top-ranked defense carried a suspect offense to the title in 2003, the Patriots developed the best offense in NFL history by 2007 and rode it to the first undefeated regular season in 35 years. The 2003-07 Patriots also had a higher peak than the Cowboys. Three of their seasons are rated higher than the Cowboys’ best season by Sports-Reference’s Simple Rating System (SRS), and the 2007 Patriots are widely regarded as one of the greatest teams ever. Overall, the 2003-07 Patriots regular season play, versatility, and peak performance is enough to outweigh the Cowboys’ extra title and move them on to the next round.
NFL Region Final: 2014-2018 New England Patriots (#6) vs. 2003-2007 New England Patriots (#9)
It’s tough to choose the best edition of the New England Patriots, but the 2014-18 mini-dynasty has a few advantages over the 2003-07 run: The 2014-18 Patriots were better in the playoffs, winning three Super Bowls in four trips, while the 2003-07 team only went two for three. New England also played better across the second set of playoff games, racking up a postseason point differential of +140 (in 14 games) between 2014 and 2018, while only winning by 98 points (in 17 games) from 2003 to 2007. And while the Patriots had a higher peak during their first run, boasting the best two seasons (2004 and 2007) in NFL history, the team was more consistent between 2014 and 2018. 2005 was a (relative) down year in New England, as the team went 10-6 with only a +41 point differential, and was knocked out in the Divisional Round. Even in 2003, when the team went 14-2 and won the Super Bowl, the Patriots didn’t dominate. Their +110 point differential was lower than all five seasons from their second run.
Finally, the 2014-18 Patriots faced much tougher competition than the first dynasty. Between 2003 and 2007, Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts team was the only squad in the AFC to eclipse 50 wins and compete with the Patriots. In contrast, New England saw several worthy challengers, such as Pittsburgh, Denver, and Kansas City, try to steal the throne between 2014 and 2018. Despite the increased competition, the Patriots found a way to stay on top. The 2014-18 Patriots faced tougher opponents in the playoffs as well. Each of the teams the Patriots beat in the Super Bowl between 2014 and 2018 (Seattle – 1783, Atlanta – 1688, Los Angeles Rams – 1667) boasted a higher Elo rating than Carolina (1606) or Philadelphia (1641), the teams the Patriots beat during their first mini-dynasty. On account of their increased postseason success, more consistent performance, and excellence against tough competition, the 2014-18 Patriots earn the crown as the top modern NFL dynasty.
We now have a Final Four of the greatest dynasties of the last 50 years: the 2014-18 Golden State Warriors, 1983-87 Edmonton Oilers, 1996-2000 New York Yankees, and the 2014-18 New England Patriots. Stay tuned for our next article breaking down these semifinal matchups to see the stories behind the numbers and find out who will be crowned the best dynasty of them all.
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Twitter @Harvard_Sports. Thank you for reading!