When the NHL Draft Lottery (Phase 1) produced a placeholder at the top of the draw, the handwringing began immediately: What if, in this year from outer space, an already-awesome team has a hiccup in the qualifying round, enters Phase 2 of the lottery and winds up with the No. 1 pick?
Of course, should a high-seeded squad like the Pittsburgh Penguins or Edmonton Oilers get bounced in a qualifier, it will be because a team that under normal circumstances would have been outside the playoff picture is suddenly in the main draw. That could cue another form of concern: What if an unworthy outfit actually advances to the Stanley Cup Final?
Considering the three-round grind it takes to make a Final, you could argue any club that gets there — regardless of its regular season record — has proven itself as a quality team. That said, there have been some pretty suspect squads get to the showcase series.
With that in mind, here’s a look at the worst teams to get within four (or fewer) wins of the Stanley Cup.
1991 Minnesota North Stars
Mario Lemieux’s coming out party — “What a goal! What a move! Ohhh Baby!” — came at the expense of a North Stars team that really should get more play for the astonishing upsets it pulled off.
After finishing fourth in a Norris Division that had two awesome teams (Chicago and St. Louis) and three average-to-awful ones (Detroit, Minnesota and Toronto), the 27-39-14 North Stars (.425 points percentage) went on an absurd run. The fact they beat a Blackhawks team that finished 38 points ahead of them is pretty well known in hockey lore as one of the biggest first-round whackings in history. You know what they did in Round 2? Beat a Blues team that finished 37 points ahead of them in the same number of games — six — it took to dust Chicago.
Minny only needed five games to win the conference final, knocking off an Edmonton team that had won the Stanley Cup 12 months prior. And, by the way, they held a 2-1 series lead on Mario and Co., before the Penguins ripped off three straight wins. Things finally caught up to them in the end, as Pittsburgh clinched the Cup with an 8-0 victory in Game 6.
1982 Vancouver Canucks
We’re so conditioned to talking about the parity in today’s game that it’s easy to forget what a monstrous gulf once existed between the NHL’s good and bad teams. Expansion through the late 1960s and ’70s coupled with the World Hockey Association merger — the NHL absorbed four new teams for the 1979-80 season — produced some wild record discrepancies in a 21-team circuit.
Despite finishing with a 30-33-17 mark, the Canucks actually placed second in the Smythe Division behind the second-best team in the league, the Edmonton Oilers. And when that 111-point Oilers squad lost to a 63-point Los Angeles Kings club in the first round, the road to the Final was wide open in a Campbell Conference where just two of 11 squads posted a winning record.
Vancouver only lost two games en route to the Final and never faced a .500-or-better club on the path. Unfortunately, the dynastic New York Islanders — who emerged from a conference where seven of 10 teams finished above .500 — were waiting in the Final and swept coach Roger Neilson and his charges.
By the way, the 1994 Canucks that came painfully close to beating Mark Messier and the Rangers could also be on this list. That outfit was 41-40-3 (84 games!) before catching fire in the post-season.