Stanley Cup Madness: Who was the best champ of the past 16?

ByGreg Wyshynski ESPN logo
Friday, March 29, 2019

It took three rounds, but Stanley Cup Madness finally had its first upset: The No. 3 Pittsburgh Penguins of 2009 toppled the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks with 53 percent of the votes.

Their reward? Facing that juggernaut of juggernauts, the 2002 Detroit Red Wings.

To reset: We took the last 16 NHL champions and placed them in hypothetical seven-game series against each other. They have the same rosters, the same styles of play, with players at the ages and levels of effectiveness they had in that championship season.

Hence, it's a 21-year-old Sidney Crosby, with one Hart Trophy and a scoring title to his credit, vs. a 32-year-old Nicklas Lidstrom working on his second Norris Trophy.

Here's how the final round break down. Vote below for your pick in this matchup, and click here to check out all the previous voting results.

Eliminated No. 16 Carolina Hurricanes (2006) in Round 1 with 94 percent of votes; eliminated No. 8 Washington Capitals (2018) in Round 2 with 77 percent of votes; eliminated No. 4 Detroit Red Wings (2002) with 81 percent of votes.

Eliminated Tampa Bay Lightning (2004) in Round 1 with 69 percent of votes; eliminated Chicago Blackhawks (2015) in Round 2 with 58 percent of votes; eliminated No. 2 Chicago Blackhawks (2010) with 53 percent of votes.

The Red Wings are the last packed and stacked team of the pre-salary cap era, with nine current Hall of Famers and potentially a 10th if Pavel Datsyuk is enshrined one day. What they don't have: The defensive depth that's required to take on a Penguins team with three strong lines anchored by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal.

The Penguins were a superior offensive team in the playoffs, with a goals per game average of 3.29 to the Red Wings' 3.13. But Detroit, with Lidstrom, Chris Chelios & Co. on the blue line, and Dominik Hasek in goal, had a goals-against average of 2.04 in the postseason to Pittsburgh's 2.67. The Penguins had the power-play advantage (20.6) but the Red Wings had the better penalty kill (86.5). Both teams have their share of offensive stars and quality grunts: The Grind Line for the Wings, and players like Max Talbot and Matt Cooke for Pittsburgh.

This Penguins team is quite familiar with being the underdog against the Red Wings. Perhaps not against Scotty Bowman's fantasy team that hasn't gotten less than 77 percent of the votes in any of the previous three rounds, but underdogs nonetheless. Underestimate Sidney Crosby at your own peril and may the best team win...

Is the only team that can stop the Detroit Red Wings ... the Detroit Red Wings?

This is exactly the kind of conundrum that our Stanley Cup Madness tournament presents. We've taken the last 16 NHL champions and placed them in hypothetical seven-game series against each other. They have the same rosters, the same styles of play, with players at the ages and levels of effectiveness they had in that championship season.

Hence, a 32-year-old Nicklas Lidstrom leads the 2002 Red Wings against a 38-year-old Nicklas Lidstrom's 2008 Red Wings in one of our Final Four matchups. The other side of the bracket has the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks against the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins. Your votes below determine which teams advance to the final round.

Before we get to the new matchups, pour a little out for these champions that left the dance in Round 2: The Washington Capitals (2018), Boston Bruins (2011), Pittsburgh Penguins (2016) and those other Pittsburgh Penguins (2016).

Now, a breakdown of the Final Four in ESPN's Stanley Cup Madness, and click here to see full voting results from the first two rounds:

Eliminated No. 16 Carolina Hurricanes (2006) in Round 1 with 94 percent of votes; eliminated No. 8 Washington Capitals (2018) in Round 2 with 77 percent of votes.

Eliminated New Jersey Devils (2003) in Round 1 with 71 percent of votes; eliminated No. 5 Boston Bruins (2011) in Round 2 with 66 percent of votes.

On paper, the 2002 Red Wings have superior talent: Nine current Hall of Famers and potentially a 10th if Pavel Datsyuk is enshrined one day. The players they share with the 2008 team -- eight of them, including Datsyuk, Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom, the team's checking line and Dominik Hasek -- are all younger models, too.

But by the numbers, the 2008 team was better in some ways: a higher goals-for average (3.27) and a lower goals-against average (1.86). They also had a deeper defense and, dare we say it, a more cohesive team. Can they stop the 2002 pre-salary cap juggernaut?

Eliminated Chicago Blackhawks (2013) in Round 1 with 79 percent of votes; eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins (2016) in Round 2 with 55 percent of votes.

Eliminated Tampa Bay Lightning (2004) in Round 1 with 69 percent of votes; eliminated Chicago Blackhawks (2015) in Round 2 with 58 percent of votes.

The Stanley Cup Final we always wanted but never got. The two most dynastic teams of the salary cap era, slugging it out. Sidney Crosby vs. Jonathan Toews. Kris Letang vs. Duncan Keith. Marc-Andre Fleury vs. ... well, Antti Niemi, but we digress.

The Blackhawks averaged 3.55 goals per game and 2.82 goals against. The Penguins were at 3.29 and 2.67. Both of these team would win two more Stanley Cups, but it could be argued these were the most stacked teams they had. Who advances to take on the Red Wings?

The first round of Stanley Cup Madness -- in which the past 16 NHL champions were pitted against each other -- was a reminder why higher seeds are called the favorites. The tournament, sadly, was sans upsets.

Perhaps that changes in the round of eight.

A reminder: These are seven-game series between the teams as they were when they won the Cup. The same rosters, the same styles of play, with the players at the ages and levels of effectiveness they had in that championship season.

Before we get to the new matchups, pour a little out for these champions who left the dance in Round 1: The Carolina Hurricanes (2006), Los Angeles Kings (2014), New Jersey Devils (2003), Anaheim Ducks (2007), Chicago Blackhawks (2013), Los Angeles Kings (2012), Tampa Bay Lightning (2004) and Pittsburgh Penguins (2017).

Now, a breakdown of the Elite Eight in ESPN's Stanley Cup Madness, and click here to see full voting results:

Carolina Hurricanes (2006) with 94 percent of votes

Los Angeles Kings (2014) with 54 percent of votes

Which offensive steamroller rolls over the other? The Red Wings are like a fantasy team that came to life, with six Hall of Famers at forward (and a seventh if Pavel Datsyuk eventually gets in), averaging 3.13 goals per game during the end of the NHL's trap era. The Capitals, however, had a goals-per-game average of 3.58, the highest for any playoff team in the past 20 years (min. 18 games). Can a top-heavy Red Wings defense -- Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Chelios, but not all that much behind them -- and Dominik Hasek stop Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and the Capitals' offensive? Conversely, can Braden Holtby withstand the barrage of Brett Hull, Brendan Shanahan, Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov and friends?

New Jersey Devils (2003) with 71 percent of votes

Anaheim Ducks (2007) with 63 percent of votes

We know the formula for this Bruins team. It wants to pummel opponents into submission -- and if the refs allow it like they did against Vancouver, why not? -- and let its holy defensive trinity of center Patrice Bergeron, defenseman Zdeno Chara and Tim Thomas in goal carry the day. But this Red Wings team can play big-boy hockey too, with the likes of Tomas Holmstrom, Johan Franzen, Niklas Kronwall and the remaining parts of 46-year-old Chris Chelios. And at 1.86 goals against per game, it was actually a better defensive team than the Bruins were in their Cup run.

Chicago Blackhawks (2013) with 79 percent of votes

Los Angeles Kings (2012) with 67 percent of votes

As we mentioned in the opening round, the only weakness on the most talented team of the Blackhawks' mini-dynasty was in goal, where Antti Niemi was ... not a liability, at the very least. But when you have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the HBK line (Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel) breaking hearts across the ice, is that going to be good enough to advance?

Tampa Bay Lightning (2004) with 69 percent of votes

Pittsburgh Penguins (2017) with 54 percent of votes

The experience factor. Remember, these are teams frozen in time. The Blackhawks, then, are a three-time Stanley Cup champion. The Penguins, then, have just captured their first Cup after losing in the Final the previous season. It's a battle of now-savvy Chicago stars and young Pittsburgh standouts who finally broke through. If nothing else, a really fascinating series for Marian Hossa to take part in. Also, the Penguins were statistically the better offensive team, but the Blackhawks were slightly better defensively.

Looking back at the past 16 Stanley Cup champions is like an anthropological study of the NHL itself. How it has gone from All-Star teams in a league without a salary cap to meticulously constructed ones under it. How suffocating defenses were legislated out in favor of a more offensive era. How the power shifted among quasi-dynastic teams. Pretty much the only through line connecting these eras is the necessity of quality goaltending. Well, that and Matt Cullen.

But what if these champions were to meet in a seven-game series, on a rink that transcends time and space? The teams are playing the same styles they played in their championship seasons. The players are the same ages, and at the same levels of effectiveness, as when they won the Stanley Cup: a 22-year-old Jonathan Toews from 2010 facing a 27-year-old Jonathan Toews from 2015, for example.

If pitted against each other, which champion from the past 16 postseasons would hoist the Stanley Cup again?

Since we're also afflicted with March Madness on the hockey side, we decided to create this 16-team tournament for your voting pleasure. Again, the rules are simple: Two teams, with the rosters they had in winning the Stanley Cup and playing the same styles, facing off against each other.

Now, a breakdown of the round of 16 in ESPN's Stanley Cup Madness, and click here to check out the full voting results:

I mean, look at this roster. There's your case. The last of the pre-salary-cap era super teams. The top eight scorers on this team are all in the Hall of Fame: Brendan Shanahan, Sergei Fedorov, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Steve Yzerman and Igor Larionov up front, and Nicklas Lidstrom (who averaged 28 minutes, 49 seconds per game in the regular season and 31:10 in the postseason) and Chris Chelios on the blue line. The Wings' ninth-leading scorer might make the Hall, too, in 23-year-old Pavel Datsyuk.

This Red Wings team shared the DNA of their previous Stanley Cup winners under Scotty Bowman in 1997 and 1998. It had its grinders like Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby and Darren McCarty. It had the hulking Tomas Holmstrom crowding creases. But it also had Dominik Hasek in goal, posting a .920 save percentage and a 1.86 goals-against in 23 playoff games.

The Colorado Avalanche, that other titan of the Western Conference, were the only team that took these Wings to seven games. Otherwise, their veteran savvy helped them overcome adversity: Losing the first two games at home against Vancouver in the first round, and overcoming a Final-opening loss to Carolina on home ice, as they won the next four straight both times.

If there was a hole on the team, it might have been on the blue line beyond the big two. Jiri Fischer and Fredrik Olausson were fine, but Steve Duchesne was no Larry Murphy.

Otherwise, this is Duke ... if Duke was made up of 12 Zion Williamsons.

The case for Carolina begins with the kid. Cam Ward, 21, went 15-8 with a .920 save percentage and a 2.14 goals-against average after taking over for Martin Gerber. That included a 22-save effort in Game 7 over Edmonton in the Cup Final to secure the Conn Smythe as a rookie, doing that Ken Dryden thing.

Too bad the Hurricanes couldn't emulate more of that Canadiens dynasty. Their offense and defense ranked them fourth and third, respectively, in the postseason. Eric Staal (28 points in 25 games) and Cory Stillman (26) were the leading scorers, but the Hurricanes had their share of veteran helping hands: Rod Brind'amour, Mark Recchi, Doug Weight and Ray Whitney among them.

And hey, if they somehow forced the series to seven games, they had Justin Williams on the roster, too -- just as they do currently, come to think of it.

Besides the siren's song of "recency bias," there are plenty of reasons to back the Capitals here. Their top two lines -- anchored by Conn Smythe winner Alex Ovechkin (15 playoff goals) and Nicklas Backstrom (23 playoff points) -- are formidable, and Lars Eller's third line was great in support. Defenseman John Carlson had a career (contract) year, while goalie Braden Holtby's .922 save percentage and 2.16 goals-against average in the postseason were enough to earn him a trip to the White House. Which, it turns out, he declined.

It took several years for the Capitals to ward off their postseason ghosts and break through for the Stanley Cup. But the 2018 model had all five of their key players -- Evgeny Kuznetsov, who led the team with 32 playoff points, was the other -- clicking at the same time, for the first postseason ever. They were an offensive force and opportunistic. Oh, and having Tom Wilson "Hulk smash" at least one opponent in each round probably had its benefits, too, if only from a lightning-rod perspective.

The second of the Kings' Stanley Cup teams was slightly better than the first, and not just because they didn't sneak in under the wire as a wild card. They won three seven-game series in a row in the arduous Western Conference -- including the now-legendary rally from a 0-3 hole in the first round against the San Jose Sharks -- before taking out the Rangers in five games for the Cup.

They weren't the smothering defensive team that the 2012 club was, but they were better offensively by over 0.50 goals per game. One key difference between the two similar rosters: Marian Gaborik, picked up at the trade deadline, who potted 14 goals to lead the Kings in the postseason. But this was still the team of Anze Kopitar (26 points in 26 playoff games), Jeff Carter (25), Justin Williams (25, with Game 7 heroics) and Drew Doughty.

The next generation of Red Wings proved to be just as Cup-worthy as the previous regime ... as long as they had Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Osgood as the foundation of their playoff run. This Wings team featured a Conn Smythe campaign from Henrik Zetterberg (27 points in 22 games), magic from Pavel Datsyuk (23 points) and a 13-goal performance from "The Mule" Johan Franzen, cementing his reputation as a postseason performer.

Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski and Niklas Kronwall held down the blue line, while Osgood continued his inexplicable postseason mastery with a 1.55 GAA in the playoffs. This edition is also notable for coach Mike Babcock getting his lone Stanley Cup ring thus far, which combined with Team Canada Olympic gold has apparently made him infallible.

The last of the Devils' three Stanley Cups during the Martin Brodeur Era. The team still had a stout blue line of Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Ken Daneyko, along with Brian Rafalski and Colin White. The Devils had the outstanding checking line anchored by John Madden and Jay Pandolfo.

Offensively, they weren't exactly on par with the 2000 edition: Their leading scorers were Jamie Langenbrunner (11 goals in the playoffs) and Jeff Friesen (10). But Patrik Elias, Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Joe Nieuwendyk sure looked good on paper for their coach, the late and great Pat Burns.

It's amazing to think that the Bruins were an overtime goal away from being ousted in the first round, in the 3-vs.-6 series against the Canadiens. It's more than amazing to think that the same guy who won the game, Nathan Horton, had the winner against the Lightning in another Game 7. Then Horton was severely injured in Game 3 of the Final by Aaron Rome of the Canucks, the whole series was thrown into chaos, and Vancouver was on fire after the Bruins won yet another Game 7 for the Cup.

And exhale.

The catalyst for this championship was the team's holy trinity of defense: Goalie Tim Thomas, who won the Conn Smythe with a .940 save percentage; defenseman Zdeno Chara, who averaged 27:39 per game in the postseason; and Patrice Bergeron, the team's 25-year-old two-way center who would win the first of four Selke Trophies the following season. Add in David Krejci's 23 points in the playoffs, Brad Marchand's 11 goals and timely contributions from Mark Recchi and Michael Ryder, along with Milan Lucic's fists, and this was quite a team.

If you add up their minutes, Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer were on the ice for an average of over 60 minutes per game in the playoffs. (An average inflated by a few double-OT games, but the point remains.) That's a pretty great starting point, especially when they played in front of Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who wasn't the wall he was in 2003 but still posted a .922 save percentage and a 1.97 GAA in the playoff run.

What was intriguing about this team was the mix of forwards: a legend in Teemu Selanne, established pros like Andy McDonald, Sammy Pahlsson and Todd Marchant; and a couple of 21-year-old kids named Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry that seemed to have a bright future ahead of them. But these Ducks are probably best known for playing "heavy hockey" for general manager Brian Burke, with players like George Parros, Brad May and Travis Moen on the roster. In a clash with the 2011 Bruins, they'd better have reinforced the boards.

We had three Blackhawks teams from which to choose in this bracket, but this one just seemed like the most logical choice for the highest seed among them. What an incredible pre-salary-cap crisis roster: The standard-bearers in Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp; the soon-to-be-jettisoned Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Brian Campbell; the impressive kids in Niklas Hjalmarsson, Kris Versteeg and Dave Bolland; and the veteran glue in John Madden, Brent Sopel and Tomas Kopecky. Oh, and some guy named Joel Quenneville leading the orchestra.

Now, a caveat the size of a large Lou Malnati Chicago Classic: Antti Niemi was the Blackhawks' primary goaltender, with a .910 save percentage and a footnote in history. Corey Crawford was, without question, an upgrade on their subsequent Cup teams. But the Blackhawks were just so loaded here that it compensated for the netminding. Well, that and the Flyers were throwing Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton at them.

Speaking of Crawford, he posted a .932 save percentage and a 1.84 GAA in leading Chicago to their second Cup of the Toews/Kane era. What was interesting about this team: Despite a dominant regular season in goal scoring, the Blackhawks posted the second-lowest goals-for average for a Stanley Cup champion (2.78) since 2005 in the postseason. Such was the freakiness of the lockout-shortened season.

In the playoffs, it was the usual suspects leading the way -- Kane, Sharp, Hossa, Keith, Toews -- along with timely contributions from Bryan Bickell, Michal Handzus and, as Boston will tell you, Dave Bolland.

There are three primary differences between this Cup champion and the one that lifted it again in 2017. The first is that overwhelming power of the HBK Line of Phil Kessel (who led the Penguins with 10 goals and 22 points), Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin. Then there was the fact that Kris Letang played 23 games, giving this team the elite defenseman it lacked in his absence the following season. And there was rookie Matt Murray, who carried the freight for 21 games rather than sharing it with Marc-Andre Fleury.

In comparison, that makes this Cup team just a bit better than the 2017 edition. But for the purposes of this tournament, let's also note that Sidney Crosby did everything and then some to lead this team, earning Conn Smythe honors; Evgeni Malkin posted 18 points; and the Penguins played only one Game 7 (in the conference final) before topping a very good Sharks team 4-2 for the Cup.

Hey, if the Kings can win a Stanley Cup out of the No. 8 seed, they can win this tournament out of the No. 10 seed, right? Jonathan Quick, Conn Smythe winner, was the story of this team, cementing his rep as a postseason hero with a 1.95 GAA and a .929 save percentage during their incredible 16-4 run through the postseason. That included a 91 percent penalty-kill rate, the best among Cup champs since 2005.

Offensively ... well, they were certainly a suffocating defensive team, weren't they? The Kings won the Stanley Cup without a single player hitting double digits in goals. But some would simply call that "balanced scoring." (That someone being Darryl Sutter, probably.)

Please recall the Penguins made the Cup Final in the previous season, losing to the Detroit Red Wings. They swapped out drill sergeant Michel Therrien for players' coach Dan Bylsma during the 2008-09 regular season and never looked back.

While there was a decided lack of Phil Kessel on this roster ... wow, was this Penguins team stacked. The young core of Evgeni Malkin (36 points to lead the playoffs), Sidney Crosby (15 goals), Kris Letang and Jordan Staal was augmented by veterans such as Bill Guerin, Ruslan Fedotenko, Chris Kunitz and Sergei Gonchar, who led perhaps the best blue line of all their Crosby-era Cup winners with Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik and the U.S.S. Hal Gill.

This was, however, back in the "winning despite Marc-Andre Fleury" days. The 24-year-old goalie hadn't yet reached postseason consistency, and posted a .908 save percentage. But he was great when it mattered most.

This team is one of the NHL's forgotten champions, because the trauma from the ensuing lockout (and lost season) eclipses it. But this was quite a lineup for its time: the Bolts' trio of Conn Smythe winner Brad Richards, Marty St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier, along with defenseman Dan Boyle and forward Fredrik Modin.

But it was the role players that made this John Tortorella team roll: Ruslan Fedotenko, following a 17-goal regular-season with 12(!) in the postseason; Pavel Kubina and Darryl Sydor as rocks on the blue line; and, of course, the 40-year-old captain Dave Andreychuk, who had 14 points in 22 games. Finally, in that last gasp of defensive-era hockey, Nikolai Khabibulin posted a .933 save percentage and a 1.71 goals-against average.

This Blackhawks team was like a next-generation iPhone: many of the same basic components, but they sell you on the upgrades.

Thus, it's hard not to respect a roster that features the names synonymous with this run -- Toews, Kane, Hossa, Keith, Seabrook, Sharp, Hjalmarsson -- but with the added bonuses of an established Brandon Saad, a trade-deadline ringer in Antoine Vermette and, incredibly, Brad Richards, whom the Blackhawks signed for $2 million against the cap because he was flush with Rangers buyout money. Richards had 14 points in the playoffs. This Chicago team was better offensively (3.00 goals per game) and leakier defensively (2.61 to 2.09) than the 2013 team.

Kris Letang is a great defenseman. One might say a team needs a defenseman like Kris Letang to win a Stanley Cup. Well, these Penguins were the exception to that rule.

Using a disparate collection of blueliners, the 2017 Pens won their second consecutive Cup despite Letang missing the playoffs with an injury. That was thanks in part to more all-world performances from Malkin (28 points to lead the team), Crosby (another Conn Smythe) and Kessel (23 points), as well as the emergence of 22-year-old Jake Guentzel, who had 13 goals playing with Sid. In goal, Fleury played 15 games and Murray played in 11 to combine for a .929 save percentage and a 2.19 GAA. It wasn't always pretty, but it ended up beautifully.