Talking Hockey: Best team of the modern era

September, 5, 2012
9/05/12
1:39
PM ET
This week, the regular guys go at it over the best team of the modern era, which, for the purposes of this argument, is defined as after the NHL absorbed four WHA teams. May no mullet go unrecognized.

DAVID WALTON: How to choose the best single-season team in the post-WHA era? Easy, you just look at win-loss records, do some quick math and, voila! Clearly, the 1992-93 San Jose Sharks are the best. Or was it the 1993-94 Ottawa Senators? I can't remember. But I do know my calculations were solid.

On a serious note, I narrowed it down to three teams:

1983-84 Edmonton Oilers
1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins
1995-96 Detroit Red Wings

Tough choice. Speaking from personal experience as a St. Louis Blues fan, the 1995-96 Red Wings broke my heart. More specifically, Steve Yzerman, Game 7, double OT. I guarantee that if you mention that phrase to any Blues fan, you will get a pained groan in response. And, of course, this is the one highlight they always show on NHL commercials: Yzerman's unreal slap shot from just inside the blue line, the puck somehow eluding Al MacInnis and Murray Baron and, most obnoxious of all, Jon Casey's shoulder. And then his euphoric (and gag-inducing) sissy-leap down the wall. Ugh.

Fun fact: After Jon Casey's playing days, he took classes at my alma mater, but I could never ask about that night and that goal. Instead, I just elected to stare and wonder about what could have been.

Now then, where was I? Oh right, best single-season team. Well, since neither the Wings nor the Penguins won the Cup in the seasons mentioned above, they are eliminated from contention. It's a shame too. Both were great teams. Detroit's top six forwards and defense unit were unmatched (well, except by the Avalanche!) and the Penguins had four guys score 90-plus points in their season, including Mario Lemieux's amazing 160 points in just 60 games. That's hard to beat. But no Stanley Cup, no trophy from me.

So we are left with the 1983-84 Oilers, which took domination to a whole new level. Five players scored 90 or more points, including 40 goals from Paul Coffey. Even Grant Fuhr had 14 assists that season. Overall, the team scored 446 goals.

The one downside to this team was defense, or lack thereof. The goalies had two shutouts between them for the entire season. Overall, the team allowed 314 goals, which was tied for 10th-best in the league. On their playoff march to the Cup, they lost just four games. Three were to the Flames (two in OT), and each game was decided by one goal. They had a minor hiccup against the Islanders in Game 2 of the finals, losing 6-1.

I believe Paul will tell us more about the Islanders later: He is going to pick one the fish-stick jersey teams.

But before we get to that, we'll have Tim tell us an enchanting and probably incoherent story about how some random Hartford Whalers team lost in the first round to the Bruins. Or Canadiens.

TIM BOUGHTON: Dave, hearing you weave through the tale of the 1995-96 playoffs while no doubt rocking in your rocking chair, smoking your corn-cob pipe and feeding the small birds nested in your long gray beard really painted a vivid picture that took me to another place and time. That is, until you got to the point where you stared at Jon Casey in class, which made the story suddenly feloniously creepy (cue sound of needle ripping off vinyl LP). I’m sure you’ll be telling that story to a parole board someday, so good luck.

Down to business. Picking the best team since 1979 is as difficult as agreeing on the best Beatles song or, in Dave’s case, which pair of Zubaz to wear to work today. Sure, some duds that have won the Cup are easy to eliminate -- ahem, cough, 2011-12 Kings -- but there were a fair share of teams that we could sit and argue about.

OK, before everyone unloads on me, I weighted heavily against teams that won during the Interference and Obstruction Are Legal era, which lasted from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s. And I'm eliminating the Oilers, although they were an offensive juggernaut, because compared to the teams I considered, they gave up too many goals -- it was fast-break city on both sides of the ice for the Oilers; Grant Fuhr didn’t have any support.

So, I chose the 1988-89 Calgary Flames as the best all-around team of the last 33 years. There are going to be arguments, but let's roll down the things that cannot be debated.

• 117 points: Presidents' Trophy Winner

• 354 goals for, 226 goals against (both second in the league): OK, they paled in comparison in goals scored to the Oilers but were far better in goals against. So, they were a complete team. This is also better than the 1992-93 Penguins.

• They were seven-deep at forward. Although they did not all have career years, they had talent that was more ridiculous than the Yardbirds' lineup of Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page.
1. Joe Mullen (HOF): 51 goals
2. Joe Nieuwendyk (HOF): 51 goals
3. Hakan Loob: 27 goals
4. Doug “Killer” Gilmour (HOF): 26 goals
5. Gary Roberts: 22 goals
OK, I said seven-deep at forward. This is kind of a stretch and I figured everyone had fallen asleep by this point in the dissertation, but you have two significant guys who didn’t play the whole season, but who were prolific goal scorers.
6. Lanny McDonald: 11 goals in 51 games
7. Theo Fleury: 14 goals in 36 games

• They were solid on the defensive end of the ice. Mike Vernon was second in the NHL in GAA and fourth in save percentage. They were anchored on the blue line by Al MacInnis and Gary Suter, although it can be debated that MacInnis was given a lot of credit because of his wicked slapper, nonetheless he was better than Paul Coffey and Larry Murphy combined in his own zone, which should settle a Penguins, Oilers or Red Wings argument. Although after (or some would say at) Jamie Macoun, it starts to get thin on the blue line, they still had good numbers as a team.

• They had a solid goon. Tim Hunter led the league in penalty minutes with 375 and was one of the greats of his era.

Paul, please take us back to 1982 (your prime) or thereabouts and regale us with tales of the world before the invention of Skittles, when the Mullet Party ruled Canadian parliament and a hockey team known as the New York Islanders dominated the league.

PAUL GRANT: OK clown shoes, how is it that the two Americans pick two Canadian teams and the Canadian picks an American team? This mutual-admiration stuff makes me want to purge.

This debate is not even close. Pick any of the Islander teams of the early-1980s glory days and they will school your respective choices. Battling Billy Smith between the pipes, Denis Potvin carrying the puck up the ice like an egomaniacal Bobby Orr, Bryan Trottier winning faceoffs and crushing namby-pambies with hits, Mike Bossy scoring from all over the ice and Clark Gillies looking mean at everyone while making room for his linemates and, oh, scoring as many as 38 goals in that stretch. And that was just the first unit.

But since I can't pick all four teams of the last truly great dynasty (the playoffs were seeded 1-16 in those days, so you couldn't build your team based on the strengths and weaknesses of your division rivals), I will go with the 1981-82 team that went 54-16-10, scoring 385 goals and allowing 250. Bossy was 24 and scored 64 goals; Trottier was 25 and scored 50. They were unstoppable: Starting Jan. 21, 1982, they went on a record 15-0 streak; they lost just three games and tied four the rest of the season. After a first-round scare against the Penguins, the Isles crushed the playoffs, sweeping the last two series, including the finals against the Canucks. Heck, Bossy scored 17 goals in 19 games, people. Al Arbour was at his peak behind the bench, Bill Torrey was still robbing other GMs to sustain his winner ... man, those were fun times. Such a travesty to see the franchise in the sad state it's in these days.

And that's the final word on this topic. I can't remember having a more memorable time.

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