Monday, December 23, 2019

Weekend rankings: How would you rank the five best teams of the decade?

We’re coming up on the end of the decade. Let’s have some fun.

And by “fun” I mean let’s all get really mad at each other.

Week after week, this column includes picks for the five best teams in the league. And week after week, I patiently try to explain that we’re looking at the long view – not just who’s hot right now, or who beat who last night, but which teams are in the best position to win the Cup. Big picture.

Well, let’s make that picture about ten times larger this week, by asking the question: Which five franchises were the best teams of the 2010s?

On the surface, this should be a lot easier than what we’re normally trying to do around here. For once, we’re not looking ahead and trying to predict the future. We’re dwelling entirely on the past here, which means we have all the information we need right in front of us. We should be able to come up with a list that everyone will agree on.

Spoiler alert: Everyone will not agree. But that’s half the fun, so let’s try to figure this out.

Let’s start at the top. Three teams won multiple Cups this decade, so they seem like our obvious best picks for the top three spots. That gives us the Blackhawks, Penguins and Kings to work with. But in what order?

My first thought is that it’s an easy call: It has to be the Hawks, right? They won three Cups, while the other teams won just two, and that seems to be the end of that. But if there’s a crack in the armor, it’s that the Hawks didn’t do all that much this decade when they weren’t winning Cups. Apart from those three Cup runs, they only had one other season where they made it out of the first round. They were knocked out in the opener four times and missed the playoffs entirely in each of the last two years (and sure seem headed there again).

Compare that to the Penguins, who only won two Cups (plus one in 2009, which doesn’t matter for our purposes here). They didn’t miss the playoffs once during a remarkably consistent decade in which their very worst season saw them post 98 points. In addition to their two Cup wins, they won at least a round in four other seasons. Hawks or Pens turns out to be a tougher call than I thought.

By contrast, the Kings are easier. They had two Cup wins, three playoff misses (with another on the way) and four first-round exits. Like Chicago, they only had one non-Cup year where they got out of the first round. Those two Cups still matter, so I’m penciling the Kings in at No. 3 for now, but they don’t have a case to go any higher.

While we mull over that Chicago/Pittsburgh conundrum, let’s move down the list. Filling the four and five spots gets tricky, in part because it’s going to turn into a philosophical debate. There are only three other teams that won Cups in the decade, so one of the Blues, Capitals and Bruins won’t make the cut. But will it be only one? Does a team have to win a Cup to be considered one of the best of the decade? I’m not completely convinced they do. As I’ve argued before, I think we’ve swung too far to the whole “You either win the Cup or your season is a failure” way of thinking, which makes for a miserable way to try to market a 31-team league. Sometimes, great teams run into a hot goalie or some bad luck or whatever else and don’t win the Cup. They’re still great teams.

In theory, that should open the door to teams like the Sharks and Lightning that were consistently good throughout the 2010s even if they never got a championship out of it. The Sharks made the playoffs nine times, and they had some success when they got there – believe it or not, they actually won more playoff rounds this decade than the Kings did. The Lightning were a little shakier, missing four times but advancing to at least the conference final in four other years. And last year’s edition was the best regular-season team of the decade.

Of the two, I think the Sharks have the best argument. But can they beat out the Blues, Bruins or Capitals?

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