Ranking every Stanley Cup Final of the salary cap era


The 2022 Stanley Cup Final is upon us, and the consensus seems to be that it’s a tantalizing matchup: Colorado vs. Tampa Bay, rising juggernaut vs. dynasty, so much star power on both sides. Will it one day be remembered as an all-time great Final?

It got me thinking: What are the best Stanley Cup Finals we’ve seen in this generation, aka the salary-cap era? For the pure fun of it all, I concocted a little scoring system to rank all 16 championship series from 2006 through 2021, awarding four points for each category:

Closeness: One point for a sweep, two points for five games and so on

Star power: Did the series showcase some of the game’s elite talent at the time?

Drama: Did the series have back-and-forth action and/or controversy?

Market: How did the series perform in terms of viewership?

Memorability: How iconic was the series? Do we still talk about it today?

Armed with those criteria, I created this ranked list.  

16. Ducks vs. Senators, 2007

Closeness: 2

Star power: 4

Drama: 1

Market: 1

Memorability: 1

Score: 9 out of 20 (45%)

This Final had the lowest U.S. TV ratings of any played in cap era save for the pandemic bubble Final of 2020. It gets maximum star power points for pitting two legitimately outstanding clubs against each other. The series gave us future Hall of Famers Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne, not to mention exciting youngsters Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry on the Anaheim side, while Ottawa’s top line of Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson was at the peak of its powers.

The series itself, though? Mostly forgettable, save for a mini controversy in which Alfredsson was accused of deliberately shooting a puck at Niedermayer late in the second period of Game 4. The Ducks cruised to a 4-1 series win.

15. Lightning vs. Canadiens, 2021

Closeness: 2

Star power: 3

Drama: 1

Market: 2

Memorability: 2

Score: 10/20 (50%)

It feels strange to rank a series involving the storied Montreal Canadiens so low, but it simply wasn’t much of a fight. The Habs staved off a sweep after falling down 3-0 in the series, but Andrei Vasilevskiy bested Carey Price, and the Bolts mostly cruised to their second consecutive Cup. The best part of the 2021 Final: Nikita Kucherov’s beer-fueled performance in the presser after Tampa clinched the series in Game 5. The 2021 Final was the most watched in Canada since 2011, but it was an absolute dud in the U.S. market.

14. Devils vs. Kings, 2012

Closeness: 3

Star power: 3

Drama: 2

Market: 2

Memorability: 2

Score: 12/20 (60%)

The series went six games, but let’s not call it close. The 2012 Kings were one of the most dominant postseason squads ever, the first to open up a 3-0 lead in all four series – and they did so as a No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. The Devils had a bit of magic of their own as an unlikely finalist, riding the last significant playoff run of Martin Brodeur’s career, but the Kings were in control. A Steve Bernier five-minute major early in Game 6 pretty much ended things, as the Kings scored three times on the ensuing power play and cruised to clinch their first championship.

13. Golden Knights vs. Capitals, 2018

Closeness: 2

Star power: 3

Drama: 1

Market: 3

Memorability: 3

Score: 12/20 (60%)

This series is arguably best known for what came directly before it and after it. We’ll remember 2017-18 as the year the Golden Knights delivered the greatest expansion-team season in major pro sports history, winning the Pacific Division and riding their band of castoffs to the Final. The Capitals, in their 13th season of the Alex Ovechkin era, finally got past the second round, toppling their rival Pittsburgh Penguins. No team in recent memory had more iconic championship celebrations than “Ovi” and those fountain-swimming Caps. What about the part in between – the games? Oh yes. Well, they were fine. Vegas won Game 1, and the Caps took over, winning four straight.

12. Penguins vs. Sharks, 2016

Closeness: 3

Star power: 3

Drama: 2

Market: 2

Memorability: 2

Score: 12/20 (60%)

It was fun to see some of the game’s most respected elder statesmen in Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau earn their first trips to the Final. It felt good seeing Sidney Crosby back competing for a championship a few years removed from some career-threatening concussion issues, but the series never felt particularly competitive. The Pens led it 2-0 and 3-1 before closing it out in six games. Penguins coach Mike Sullivan’s speed-based system inspired copycatting league-wide, which created a faster pace in the NHL for years to come.

11. Kings vs. Rangers, 2014

Closeness: 2

Star power: 2

Drama: 2

Market: 4

Memorability: 2

Score: 12/20 (60%)

Theoretically, New York/L.A. was dreamiest matchup Gary Bettman could ever want. Too bad it was a short series. The five-game result was more competitive than it looked, with three games going to overtime. Henrik Lundqvist kept the Rangers in games as best he could, but it wasn’t enough. Alec Martinez scored the Cup-clincher in Game 5. The truth: The real Stanley Cup Final in 2013-14 was played in the Western Conference Final when L.A. and Chicago fought a seven-game war for the ages.

10. Lightning vs. Stars, 2020

Closeness: 3

Star power: 3

Drama: 3

Market: 1

Memorability: 3

Score: 13/20 (65%)

Bubbles. Quarantine hotels. Fake crowd noise. The 2020 Final, played in September of that year, is best remembered for the pandemic surrounding it. The Cinderella Stars gave the Lightning a surprisingly good fight, winning Game 1 and pushing two games in the series to overtime, but the Lightning, hungry to erase the humiliation of being swept in Round 1 as the No. 1 overall seed the previous season, weren’t to be denied, taking the series in six games.

9. Red Wings vs. Penguins, 2008

Closeness: 3

Star power: 4

Drama: 2

Markets: 3

Memorability: 2

Score: 14/20 (70%)

2008 marked Crosby and Evgeni Malkin’s first foray into the Stanley Cup Final and was the first of three straight final berths for Marian Hossa. With Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg leading the other side, this series oozed skill. It wasn’t too competitive, however. The Pens were on their heels all series, lucky to even make it six games. In their triple-overtime victory in Game 5, Pens goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury faced twice as many shots as his counterpart Chris Osgood.

8. Penguins vs. Predators, 2017

Closeness: 3

Star power: 3

Drama: 2

Market: 3

Memorability: 3

Score: 14/20 (70%)

Who could forget the passion of Smashville? The Predators’ first trip to the Stanley Cup Final made for joyful viewing. The series had some bad blood here and there to keep things entertaining, most notably when Nashville blue-liner P.K. Subban claimed Crosby called him out midgame for bad breath. Subban later admitted that he made up the story. As for the series itself? It was even at 2-2 after four games, but every game in the series was decided by multiple goals.

7. Blackhawks vs. Flyers, 2010

Closeness: 3

Star power: 3

Drama: 3

Market: 4

Memorability: 3

Score: 16/20 (80%)

Any Stanley Cup Final that ends with a memorably strange overtime goal lives on. When Chicago’s Patrick Kane scored to end Game 6, the puck got wedged in the net, and not even the broadcasters immediately could tell if it was in. Only Kane and Patrick Sharp celebrated at first, and a goal review eventually confirmed that the Hawks had won their first championship since 1961. In addition to Kane, the series featured Jonathan Toews at his best, capturing the Conn Smythe Trophy. The Flyers’ path to the final was something to behold, as they rallied from a 3-0 series deficit to beat Boston in the Eastern Conference Final and rode longtime AHL journeyman Michael Leighton in net to within two victories of a championship.

6. Lightning vs. Blackhawks, 2015

Closeness: 3

Star power: 4

Drama: 2

Market: 4

Memorability: 3

Score: 16/20 (80%)

Skill was on display in spades as the Hawks defended their mini dynasty against a Lightning core that was still learning how to win. The series provided the first prolonged national exposure to the quote machine that was Tampa coach Jon Cooper, while it gave us a hint of the future when a young netminder named Andrei Vasilevskiy was thrust into action to replace an injured Ben Bishop for part of the series. Vasilevskiy earned his first of what would be many more playoff victories, but it wasn’t enough to deny the Blackhawks, which took the series in six games. Tampa was knocking on the door, though. Games 1-5 were decided by a goal apiece.

5. Hurricanes vs. Oilers, 2006

Closeness: 4

Star power: 2

Drama: 4

Markets: 2

Memorability: 4

Score: 16 out of 20 (80%)

This Stanley Cup Final, the first of the cap era, had a little bit of everything. The Oilers were on a shocking run as a No. 8 seed, having pulled multiple upsets on their path to the Final. The Canes were riding the surprise play of rookie goaltender Cam Ward, who was unexpectedly called into action in the first round to replace starter Martin Gerber after Carolina dropped consecutive home games to open the playoffs.

The series did not disappoint. It had drama to spare, like when Oilers goaltender Dwayne Roloson went down with a Game 1 knee injury that knocked him out of the series. It had a Chris Pronger scoring the first penalty shot goal in Stanley Cup Final history and a shocking goal-scoring performance from grinder Fernando Pisani. The Canes edged the Oilers in a thrilling seven-game set.

4. Bruins vs. Blues, 2019

Closeness: 4

Star power: 3

Drama: 3

Market: 4

Memorability: 3

Score: 17/20 (85%)

The song “Gloria” by Laura Branigan will forever be associated with the St. Louis Blues’ emotional 2019 postseason, in which they captured their first championship after waiting five decades. Their seesaw battle with the Bruins stretched seven games, and Jordan Binnington made like Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy, Cam Ward and Matt Murray, making a surprise Cup run as a rookie goaltender. The Bruins would slowly disband following the 2018-19 season. Looking at them today, it’s clear that losing Game 7 of the 2019 Final on home ice was the end of their peak contention window.

3. Blackhawks vs. Bruins, 2013

Closeness: 3

Star power: 3

Drama: 4

Market: 4

Memorability: 3

Score: 17/20 (85%)

Viewership-wise, Chicago/Boston was a chef’s kiss matchup for the NHL, drawing the biggest U.S. TV ratings of any Final in the cap era. It featured two loaded teams seeking their second championships of the decade, too, and had some wild endings. Games 1, 2 and 4 went to overtime, and who could forget the stunning conclusion to Game 6? The Bruins held a 2-1 lead at home late in the third period and seemed poised to force a Game 7. Then…bang, bang! The Hawks struck twice in 17 seconds, first Bryan Bickell and then, with less than a minute remaining in regulation, Dave Bolland. Chicago snatched the series away in the blink of an eye.

2. Red Wings vs. Penguins, 2009

Closeness: 4

Star power: 4

Drama: 3

Markets: 3

Memorability: 3

Score: 17/20 (85%)

The Penguins’ revenge series was quite the roller coaster. They dropped Game 1 and 2 in Detroit. After they won two straight in Pittsburgh to even the series, Fleury got pulled in Game 5 after surrendering five goals. It was quite the redemption arc for “Flower,” who made an all-time save on Lidstrom in the dying seconds of Game 7 to help Pittsburgh win the Cup – with Crosby hobbling on one leg after he got knocked out of the game with a knee injury.

1. Canucks vs. Bruins, 2011

Closeness: 4

Star power: 4

Drama: 4

Market: 3

Memorability: 4

Score: 19/20 (95%)

Oh, the DRAMA. The 2011 Stanley Cup Final is immortal. Where do we start? The back-and-forth action that pushed the series to seven games? Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo struggling so badly in Boston that it created a mini goalie controversy between him and Cory Schneider? Tim Thomas insisting it wasn’t his job to pump Luongo’s tires? Brad Marchand terrorizing the Sedins? The horrific hit by Aaron Rome on Nathan Horton? How about the violent, fiery riot that exploded in downtown Vancouver after the Canucks lost Game 7 at home? No Cup Final of the cap era lives on like this one. It was emotional, ugly and chock-full of future Hall of Fame talents, from Daniel and Henrik, to Luongo, to Marchand, to Zdeno Chara, to Brad Marchand, to Patrice Bergeron, to Mark Recchi.





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