Crunching The Numbers: What is the “Best Team Ever”?

By: Chris Dagonas

The two most feared words in the NHL right now are: Chicago Blackhawks.  Seeing those words on your team’s upcoming schedule brings feelings of terror and dread. And when that game is over, your team having inevitably suffered defeat, if not total humiliation, you can finally relax, and take comfort in the knowledge that they’ve been doing the same thing to everyone, all year long. Are this year’s Chicago Blackhawks the greatest NHL team ever? And where do they rank among the all-time greatest sports teams? I’m glad you asked.

The 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens are widely considered the NHL’s best team ever. They amassed the most points ever (132), totaling 60 wins and 12 ties in an 80 game season.  They featured Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, Steve Shutt, Yvan Cournoyer, and Ken Dryden. They lost only 10 percent of their games, while winning 75 percent of them. That figure has long looked unsurpassable. Then this year’s Chicago Blackhawks happened.

Bilingualism At Work!

Bilingualism At Work!

This year’s Blackhawks have played 22 games and won 19, good for a winning percentage of .864. They have only lost 3, and all of those have been in overtime.  That means that they have gathered at least a point IN EVERY GAME THEY’VE PLAYED! Now, these totals should come with a massive asterisk, of course: The season will only be 48 games, due to the Second Labour Disruption. We will never know how good this squad could have been through an 82 game schedule. But what they are doing should not be ignored. Now, on to some other sports.

Many of baseball’s best team records exist from the era when games were played in the daytime, without electricity or African-Americans. But for a modern achievement, I looked at the 2001 Seattle Mariners.  They held a record of 116-46, and a winning percentage of 0.716. They qualify as baseball’s representative for this competition.

The Japanese Sensation...Ichiro!

The Japanese Sensation: Ichiro!

The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls take the cake for best basketball team, and placing Chicago on this list twice seems unfair to a lifelong Torontonian sports fan. Those Bulls went 72-10, amassing a winning percentage of 0.878! That is ridiculous.

In 2013, who is the most newsworthy of these three? If you guessed Dennis Rodman...no one guessed Dennis Rodman

In 2013, who is the most newsworthy of these three? If you guessed Dennis Rodman… no one guessed Dennis Rodman.

Of course, no article about great team seasons is complete without the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the NFL’s only perfect team. They went 14-0 (plus 3-0 in the playoffs), and you don’t need me to tell you that’s 100 percent. But, my Miami Dolphins fandom aside, this is also an asterisk worthy accomplishment. Is this season long enough to really stand beside the NHL, NBA and MLB seasons?

The 1972 Miami Dolphins.  I feel like Ray Finkle should be in there somewhere. And if you got that reference, we should be friends.

The 1972 Miami Dolphins. I feel like Ray Finkle should be in there somewhere. And if you got that reference, we should be friends.

Sticking with football, but the European variety, we go to the 2003-04 Arsenal season.  In 38 games, they too went undefeated. No losses, 26 wins and 12 ties (draws, as they’re known in England), a winning percentage of 1.000, but the ties hurt that a little bit.

Thierry Henry and company.  Soccer's best club season.

Thierry Henry and company. Soccer’s best club season.

These are the contenders. Now that we have established the surface statistics, we will dive deeper by measuring categories like level of competition, length of schedule, offensive and defensive achievements. In the end, we will have mathematically solved the question: What Is the Best Team Ever?

Let’s go.

PERCENTAGES

I’ll start with winning percentages. This one is straightforward. The ’72 Dolphins get 5 points for going 100%. Next, Arsenal will be given 4 points (they were also 100%, but had more ties thrown in). The 95-96 Bulls get 3 points for an 88% winning percentage. The 76-77 Canadiens get 2 points for 75%. Lastly, the Seattle Mariners get 1 point for their 71%. Based on those figures, this year’s Chicago Blackhawks, sitting currently at 81%, will be awarded 2.5 points.

SCHEDULE

We move now to the difficulty of the schedule. Undoubtedly, a 162 game schedule is tougher than a 14 game schedule, and no reasonable person could expect a team to go 162-0. So, I’ll award 5 points to the Mariners for having such a successful regular season. The Bulls come next, 4 points, for fantastic percentages over an 82 game season. The Canadiens get 3 points, Arsenal will get 2, and the Miami Dolphins get 1 point for winning 14 games. The Hawks, having played 22 games, will be given 1.5 points.

Let’s take a look at the standings after the first round of considerations:

‘95-‘96 Bulls – 7

’72 Dolphins – 6

‘01 Mariners – 6

’03-’04 Arsenal – 6

‘76-‘77 Canadiens – 5

’12-’13 Blackhawks – 4

I’ll now dive a little deeper into offensive and defensive stats. Again, comparisons are hard to draw. I can’t say that the Bulls were better than the Canadiens because they scored 100 points a game while the Canadiens only scored 3.  So I’ll look at where the teams ranked among their peers in those seasons, and award points based on that as well.

OFFENSE

The 1972 Miami Dolphins dominated the league. They finished first in points scored, with 18 more than the next closest team. That’s worth 5 points. The Montreal Canadiens also led the league on offense, scoring 387 goals in 80 games, an average of 4.8 per game, and 64 more than the nearest team. Again, we’ll award 5 points for offensive dominance. Not surprisingly, the ’95-’96 Bulls scored the most points per game, 105.2 to be specific, helped no doubt by this guy. 5 points to the Bulls. The 2001 Mariners were an offensive juggernaut, despite losing future Hall-of-Famers Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez to free agency. They outscored all other teams, and in doing so, earned 5 points in this article. I have no doubt in my mind that was their main ambition.  Lastly, we come to Arsenal’s 2003-04 campaign. They scored 73 goals, good for first in the EPL, and for 5 points.

Since all teams being studied ended up first in their respective leagues on offense, the category is a wash. All teams are awarded 5 points. Now, how about those Blackhawks? They are not first in the league, currently sitting at fourth in goals scored. So, they will be awarded 4 points instead of the 5 for all others.

DEFENSE

The Miami Dolphins ended up first in the NFL in points allowed as well, so they have earned another 5 points for that accomplishment. Ditto to the Montreal Canadiens. The Bulls, however, were not the NBA’s best defense in ‘95-’96. That honour went to the Cleveland Cavaliers (hard to imagine, I know). The Bulls finished tied for second with the Detroit Pistons, so they’ll be given 4 points. The Mariners were the stingiest team in baseball in 2001 as well, so another 5 points to them. Likewise, Arsenal was the toughest team to score against in English soccer in 2003-’04, so 5 more to the Gunners.

The Blackhawks are currently tied for first in goals allowed, so that’s good for 5 points.

Let’s look at the updated standings.

Bulls – 16

Dolphins – 16

Mariners – 16

Arsenal – 16

Canadiens – 15

Blackhawks – 13

ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL

OK, regular season dominance is one thing. Now, we’ll look at how these teams performed when it came to the playoff stages. The 1972 Dolphins continued their winning streak right through the playoff rounds, winning the divisional and conference rounds, then the Super Bowl, and another 5 points in the process. The Montreal Canadiens would go on to win the Stanley Cup, through a more difficult process than the NFL playoffs.  Since the hockey playoffs are more difficult to progress through, what with 7 game series and playing some games on the road, I’ll count the Canadiens win for 6 points. The Chicago Bulls, similarly, charged through the NBA playoffs, losing only 3 games through 4 rounds of basketball! This, like the Canadiens, is worth more than just the basic 5. Long series, games on the road, and a winning percentage of 89! Total dominance, and worth 7 points in the standings. The 2001 Seattle Mariners managed to hugely disappoint in the playoffs, barely escaping a first round matchup with the Cleveland Indians before falling to the New York Yankees in the ALCS. So, I have to dock them 2 points, leaving them with 3. The English soccer system is a bit different from North American playoff systems, as in there really isn’t a playoff structure. But, there is European competition, namely the UEFA Champions League. In the same year that they were dominating England, Arsenal fell, ironically, to English competitor Chelsea, in the quarterfinals of the Champions League. Another 2 point dock, one for failing to make it past the quarterfinals, and one for the irony of losing to an English team. 3 points to Arsenal.

During the course of this study, Same Page Team contributor Ian Clark suggested an additional field of study, that of the external circumstances. For example, the 2001 Mariners had just lost their best players when they had this great season, which should provide a boost.  However, to counter that, the 2002 Mariners won 93 games and finished in third in their division, so the “Fluke Factor” is high on this one. In contrast, the ’96-’97 Bulls finished the regular season 69-13, and defended their NBA Championship. So, bonus points to them. I decided not to count this in the standings, as it is hard to put value on such circumstances, but it does certainly add to the discussion.

Final look at the standings:

Bulls – 23

Dolphins – 21

Canadiens – 21

Arsenal – 19

Mariners – 19

Blackhawks – TBD

I know this is far from splitting the atom. Sports fans have long relied on gut instinct to settle this sort of dispute. But, in venturing through the numbers, I found myself surprised a few times. I would never have guessed that a Seattle Mariners team could be given the title of the “Best (Modern) Baseball Team”, alongside so many great Yankees squads. Also, the undefeated Arsenal seems like it should be much higher than 4th on the list of 5, but a disappointing UEFA Champions League campaign dropped them considerably. The 1972 Miami Dolphins are a great team, no doubt, but the NFL Playoffs do carry a bit of a “Fluke Factor”, and the extremely short season has to be weighed against the drag that can be a full NBA or NHL season. I was not surprised to see that the 1995-1996 Bulls ended up on top, but it is satisfying to have empirical evidence, rather than the old “Michael Jordan is the greatest!” kind of thing you usually hear.

As for this year’s Blackhawks, well, the evidence isn’t all in yet. They could nudge their offense up to first in the league by the end of this season. They may continue to play excellent defensive hockey throughout the second half of the year. They have a great chance to roll through the playoffs and capture the Stanley Cup. Perhaps, if they achieve all of that, they can surpass the Montreal Canadiens of the 1970’s as the NHL’s best team ever. Though, we see now just how difficult that can be.

Wait, this is a shortened season.  OK, pass the calculator.

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