The Greatest

10 greatest single-season turnarounds in NHL history

NHL
Penguins teammates Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were a formidable 1-2 punch for the 2006-07 Pittsburgh Penguins. (Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

It’s one thing to enter an NHL season with the belief that your fortunes can will turn around. It’s another thing for that to actually happen, though, so it’s worth celebrating when it does. Together, Bob Herpen and Joe St. Germain scoured the record books to come up with a list of the 10 greatest single-season turnarounds in NHL history. Read on to see which season takes the top spot!

10) 1943-44 Montreal Canadiens

This one probably seems weird at first, right? The Canadiens are hockey royalty: 24 Stanley Cups, 15 retired numbers, 62 Hall of Famers, 14 Oscar winners, five MacArthur Genius Grants, two Nobel Prizes, seven Michelin Stars and a Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. (For the off-Broadway play, Sacre Bleu, Blanc et Rouge!: A Comedy in Three Acts. Written by Bob Gainey, of all people!)

Okay, some of those may have been exaggerations. Still, before the Habs became the unstoppable robo-hydra that terrorized hockey for the next 40 years, the 1942 incarnation consisted of lesser mythical beings and mortal men. Yes, they still had six future Hall of Famers, but RW Maurice Richard only played 16 games and goalie Paul Bibeault was nothing special. Montreal went 19-19-2 and were quickly bounced in the playoffs.

Next year, Bibeault left to serve in the army. All the Canadiens did was replace him with Hall of Famer and six-time Vezina winner Bill Durnan. Between his league-best 2.18 GAA and a full season from Richard, Montreal posted the biggest single-season turnaround ever, according to Hockey Reference’s SRS score. –JSG

9) 1974-75 New York Islanders

In their second season of existence, the team which called Long Island home finished with 19 wins, 56 points and placed eighth for the second consecutive season. Though the finish ranked miles ahead of their 12-win, 30-point inaugural campaign, it wasn’t nearly enough to escape last place in the East Division.

However, Year Three saw the turbo boosters kick in. In large part due to leading scorer and sophomore defenseman Denis Potvin along with a goaltending tandem of Chico Resch and Billy Smith, the Isles upped their offense by 82 goals and whittled their allowance by 26. New York ended up with its first-ever winning regular season thanks to 33 wins and 22 ties that left them third in a competitive, newly-created Patrick Division.

In the playoffs, they announced their arrival as a future threat, dispatching the Rangers in a best-of-three (winning two at Madison Square Garden), becoming the second team in NHL history to rally from 0-3 down to beat the Penguins in seven, then taking the defending Cup champion Flyers to a Game 7 after trailing that series 0-3. –BH

8) 1987-88 New Jersey Devils

Through Kansas City, Denver and East Rutherford, and 13 mostly forgettable NHL seasons, the itinerant franchise never reached 30 wins, 70 points, and had only reached the postseason once – in 1978 as the Colorado Rockies. The previous year, the Devils finished last for the second straight season in the Patrick, but raised their win total from 28 to 29 and point stash from 59 to 64.

New Jersey struggled to remain above water for much of 1987 and ’88, swapping Doug Carpenter for Jim Schoenfeld behind the bench in-season. The team received a massive boost in net from Canadian Olympian Sean Burke, who went 10-1 with a 3.05 GAA down the stretch. But in a packed Patrick Division – where every team would finish with a winning record – the Devils needed to win their final contest of the season in Chicago. Lose or tie, they would miss the playoffs yet again…

The good feeling lasted deep into Spring, as the Devils shocked many hockey experts by dispatching the first-place Islanders in six games, then upsetting the Capitals on the road in a Game 7 before stretching the Wales Conference champion Bruins to another Game 7. –BH

7) 2007-08 Philadelphia Flyers

The 2007-08 Flyers scored 34 more goals, conceded 70 (!) fewer and added 20 wins (39 points) to their prior year totals. They rode this amazing change in fortune from fifth place in the Atlantic Division all the way to … fourth place.

Yeah, the 2006-07 Flyers were awful. How awful? A franchise-worst 56 points. Their 22 wins, lowest since they had 17 in 1969-70, represented a drop-off of 45 points from the previous season. Their luck was rotten, too — despite the league’s worst record, they missed out on the No. 1 pick in the lottery, which went to the Blackhawks. (As if that wasn’t bad enough, that pick became Patrick Kane, the guy who scored the 2010 Stanley Cup-winning goal … in overtime … against the Flyers. Insult, meet injury.)

As is usually the case in Philly, our focus belongs squarely on goaltending. You don’t keep 70 goals out of the net on accident, and an improvement THAT big isn’t strictly better coaching. Your 2006 starter, Antero Niittymaki, made 52 starts of 3.38 GAA, .894 SV% hockey. Needless to say, that was: terrible. In just 16 games, veteran Martin Biron went 3.02 and .908, respectively. Small sample size aside, Biron was posting above-league-average numbers.

Count then-interim coach John Stevens among the impressed, because he installed Biron as the starter in 2007. Biron rewarded the Flyers with an even better season (30 wins, 2.59, .918) en route to a conference final showdown with Pittsburgh. Biron’s 13.4 Goalie Point Shares were a full point higher than the entire 2006 team combined. –JSG

6) 2006-07 Pittsburgh Penguins

Let’s be clear: The Penguins teams of the early-2000’s were the fakest teams in NHL history. They were Mario Lemieux’s attempt at a Producers-style pick-stockpiling scheme. After he and Ron Burkle bought the team in 1999, the Pens slowly let aging veterans with recognizable names (Alex Kovalev, Martin Straka, Robert Lang and Super Mario himself) make way for fictional players with absurd names (Andy Chiodo? Rico Fata? Dick effing Tarnstrom??). It’s a wonder they didn’t try to sign Taro Tsujimoto to a minimum contract.

Why the tanking effort? So they could pick first, second, first and second in four straight drafts — picks that became Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal. So, yeah, the end result was worth it. The 2005 Penguins, despite full years from Crosby and Fleury, finished just one point above the St. Louis Blues for last place. The 2006 Penguins, with Malkin and Staal joining the lineup and full seasons from Ryan Whitney, Max Talbot and Rob Scuderi, earned 105 points and made the first of what is currently a 10-season streak of postseason appearances, a streak that has seen them win two Cups in three finals appearances. –JSG

Mario Lemieux

Look at Mario Lemieux in these pictures. You see that smile? That’s the smile of a man with a master tanking plan. (Left: Andre Ringuette/Getty Images; Right: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

5) 2013-14 Colorado Avalanche

The former Quebec Nordiques find themselves on this list twice. The modern version earns their spot for exploding on to the scene and maintaining their torrid, analytics-defying pace all the way to 112 points and a Central Division crown. Though they were ousted in the first round, their Duchene-Landeskog-O’Reilly-MacKinnon core combined for 262 points at just 84 years of age. Tack on a career year in goal from Semyon Varlamov (Hockey Reference credits him with 27.45 goals saved above average, tops in the league) and it’s no wonder the Avs defied expectations.

Most emblematic of Colorado’s season was undoubtedly Patrick Roy, Avalanche legend and rookie NHL coach. The fiery Roy also exploded onto the scene in Denver, just in a much more literal sense:

Much like that partition, the Ducks got destroyed in Roy’s coaching debut — as most of Colorado’s opponents did all season. Unfortunately, the turnaround wasn’t sustainable. The team won just 39 games in each of its next two seasons and culminated in Roy’s resignation just weeks before the upcoming one. Sorry, Avs fans. You’ll always have that GIF! –JSG

4) 1992-93 Quebec Nordiques

The previous five seasons had been nothing short of a nightmare in La Belle Province. Quebec went from taking the rival Canadiens to a Game 7 in the second round, to five consecutive last-place finishes in the Adams Division as all their franchise-iconic players left or were traded. In 1989-90, the Nords posted just 12 wins and 31 points – both team lows and by far the worst record in the NHL. By 1991-92, their low standing allowed for some top talent to be drafted in the meantime. Thanks to young guns Joe Sakic, Owen Nolan and Mats Sundin, they managed 20 wins and 52 points, showing promise of better things to come.

It all exploded into brilliance during an expansion year, thanks to a mega-trade with the Flyers that netted them four ready-to-go players (Hextall, Duchesne, Ricci & Huffman) and two prospects (Forsberg & Simon) for former No. 1 draft pick Eric Lindros. Quebec doubled its points output to 104, pumped home 351 goals after Sundin and Sakic both broke the 100-point barrier, and climbed to second place in the Adams. The playoffs were a let down, though, as the Nordiques lost a six-game first-round series to the Habs after winning the first two contests on home ice. –BH

3) 1981-82 Winnipeg Jets

There’s an old cliché which says one person can make a difference. And most times, that’s all it is – a useless, repeated phrase. But Dale Hawerchuk’s arrival at the corner of Portage and Main in the Summer of 1981 to sign his contract after Winnipeg selected him first overall signaled one of the most startling reversals in league lore. Winnipeg’s nine victories, 32 points and 30-game winless streak in 1980-81 ranked as the league’s worst that year and also one of the worst single-season offerings in NHL history.

But when that 18-year-old from Cornwall of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League hit the ice, it was pure magic. Hawerchuk sat firmly at the head of the table, winning the Calder Trophy after becoming the second rookie (and second in as many years after Quebec’s Peter Stastny) to score 100 points. U.S. Olympian and Gold medalist Dave Christian contributed 76 points as team captain, Morris Lukowich poured in 43 goal and the Jets finished exactly at .500 for the season (33-33-14), gaining the club’s first NHL playoff berth. –BH

2) 1993-94 San Jose Sharks

It wouldn’t be hard at all to top the Bay Area’s expansion record over its first two NHL seasons: 28 combined wins, 63 combined points and a pair of last-place finishes in the Smythe Division. It certainly wouldn’t be difficult to make any improvement over an 11-71-2 record – which stands tied for the second-worst single-season mark in NHL history as well as a stand-alone record for most losses in a single year.

But the Sharks in their third year of existence went for maximum shock value. Not only did they end up being competitive, they snagged the eighth and final playoff spot in the West by finishing strong with an 8-2-3 record down the stretch. That netted San Jose then-records of 33 wins and 82 points – an improvement of 58 from the previous season which still stands as an all-time record. Once in the playoffs, they shocked the top team in the conference with a memorable late Game 7 goal in Detroit, then took the Maple Leafs to another close road Game 7 before being eliminated.  Jamie Baker’s name is still on par with some of the worst vulgarities in eastern Michigan. –BH

1) 2005-06 Carolina Hurricanes

If you’re looking for a case study in the capriciousness of NHL playoff success, look no further than the Carolina Hurricanes. At the turn of the century, the ‘Canes were an “eh” team. In 2002, they had a goal differential of exactly zero, and their 91 points were only seventh-best in the Eastern Conference. But because A) division winners earned a top-three seed automatically and B) the Southeast Division was atrocious then, Carolina rode a berth as the No. 3 seed all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. Crazy!

The next year, Carolina was abysmal. The year after that, they were still-pretty-terrible. They weren’t too bad the following year, but that’s mostly because of the lockout, so by the time 2005-06 rolled around Carolina’s Stanley Cup appearance felt like a lucid dream. There wasn’t much reason to think the post-lockout version would be anything special.

Until Eric Staal happened.

Just before the lockout, Staal managed 31 points in his rookie season with the ‘Canes. Then he used his free time during the lockout to get cybernetic implants and master dark magic. The story goes that he played in the AHL, but that’s obviously a cover, because the Eric Staal that came back to the NHL was transcendent. Along with newcomers Cory Stillman and Ray Whitney, the Hurricanes scored an absurd 294 goals, third-best in the league. Staal alone contributed 45 and added 55 assists en route to his only 100-point season.

(If you’re skeptical of the whole dark magic thing from before, check this out: Staal has broken the 80-point mark just ONE other time in his career. His other seasons have been good, but not “Hey, I was only two points behind Sidney Crosby” good.)

Eric Staal

Not many people know this, but Eric Staal’s first name is actually spelled “e-RIC,” which is short for “electronic-Robotically Enhanced Cyborg.” Helps explain why he registered 100 points in the regular season and 28 more during the playoffs, doesn’t it? (Photo: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

The ‘Canes finished the year with 52 wins and 112 points, both still franchise records. As a strong No. 2 seed, Carolina rolled through the first two rounds before taking the conference final and Stanley Cup Final in seven games each. Staal was sublime throughout, putting up a league-high 28 points and seven power play goals. He was, simply put, unstoppable. He was Conn Smythe-worthy.

Until Cam Ward happened.

Cam Ward is a serviceable player. Among active goalies, he’s 22nd in goals against average and 24th in save percentage. He was even shakier than that as a rookie, though, and he started just 28 games as a result. But once the playoffs started, starting goalie Martin Gerber got shelled: In just 221 minutes of action (less than four games), Gerber allowed 13 goals on 90 shots. Head coach Peter Laviolette, probably just trying to save himself the hassle of making a goalie change every other game, eventually named Ward the starter and rode him the rest of the way. Ward repaid that confidence with a sterling 2.14 GAA and a .920 SV%, marks he’s barely even even APPROACHED in his subsequent seasons.

Since then, the ‘Canes have made the playoffs … once. The 2005-06 season remains, as far as we’re concerned, the most remarkable single-season turnaround in NHL history. They were buoyed by career-best years from several key players; once everyone regressed to the mean, so did the team. –JSG

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Bob Herpen

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