When discussing the greatest NHL teams of all time, there are several obvious candidates. Among hockey fans who dont yet use walkers, the most fondly remembered teams are the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s and the Detroit Red Wings of the last 15 years. Fans with a more historical bent (I exclude from the characterization Iain Fyffe, who has always been partial to the Vancouver Millionnaires of the 1910s) will cite the Gordie Howe Red Wings of the 1940s and 1950s, who finished first overall in the regular season seven consecutive years, and the late 1950s Canadiens who won five consecutive Stanley Cups from 1956-1960. But if pressed, most hockey fans will agree that the Montreal Canadiens of the late 1970s, who won four Consecutive Stanley Cups and set a host of records that will never be beaten, deserve the crown.
While the 70s Canadiens won four Stanley Cups, the same as the Islanders and Oilers and one fewer than their brethren 20 years earlier, it is the degree to which they dominated the rest of the league that sticks out. From 1976 to 1978, the Canadiens regular season record was 177 Wins, 29 Losses and 34 Ties. They averaged over 129 Points per Season, over just 80 games and without the Bettman charity point; in fact, those are three of the four highest point totals ever recorded, joined only by the 131 points recorded by the 1995-96 Red Wings (over 82 games). They averaged (averaged!) a goal differential of +185 over those three seasons. Their playoff records were 12-1, 12-2, 12-3 and 12-4 during their four Stanley Cup runs. No team had been as clearly dominant before or has been since.
However, there is a fair question to ask: are we measuring those Canadiens against the same caliber of opponents that our other great teams had to face? Everyone understands that sports has changed dramatically over the last 50 years, and any notion of a head-to-head matchup between the 1956 Canadiens and the 1984 Oilers should be saved for video games and friendly arguments in pubs. The best we can do is compare teams to the competition that existed at the time. But by this measure, the Canadiens of the 1970s had a much easier task than any other elite team.
In 1967, the NHL had six teams, as had been the case for a quarter century. But the next ten years saw dramatic changes in the world of professional hockey: the NHL expanded from 6 to 12, and then to 14, 16 and 18 teams from 1967 to 1974. Meanwhile, in 1972 the World Hockey Association (WHA) was launched, and with money and fanfare, began poaching NHL talent. By 1974, there were 18 teams in the NHL and 14 in the WHA: 32 major league hockey teams in North America, where seven years earlier there had been six. To say there was a dilution in talent would not do justice to how much the level of competition eroded.