6 Greatest Rebound Seasons in NHL History

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistApril 27, 2021

6 Greatest Rebound Seasons in NHL History

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    Bruce Bennett/Associated Press

    Pity the poor Buffalo Sabres.

    The Western New York-based franchise marked 50 years since its NHL arrival with one of the most woeful stretches in league history, going from mid-February to late March without a victory and essentially clinching that another Stanley Cup tournament will come and go without their participation.

    Buffalo hasn't reached the playoffs in 10 straight seasons, tying a league record previously shared by the Florida Panthers (2001-11) and the Edmonton Oilers (2007-17).

    But don't lose all hope quite yet.

    NHL history is dotted with teams who've gone from the league's basement to the upper floors—if not the penthouse—in a single season thanks to prudent draft picks, timely trades and free-agent signings or just plain good fortune.

    For example, the Oilers themselves traded history's greatest player, Wayne Gretzky, not long before the 1988-89 season and came back to hang a championship banner at the end of the subsequent 1989-90 campaign thanks in part to the haul they got from that deal.

    With that as a high-profile precedent, the B/R hockey writing team got together to compile a list of the half-dozen greatest rebound seasons in NHL history. We looked at where the teams were, where they went and some of the storylines that made the standings spikes possible.

    Take a look at our collection and drop a reaction or two of your own in the comments.

Carolina Hurricanes (2005-06)

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    ANN HEISENFELT/Associated Press

    Before: 2003-04

    28-34-14, 6 OT Losses (76 points, missed playoffs)

    After: 2005-06

    52-22-8 (112 points, won Stanley Cup)

    What Happened

    First, and perhaps most importantly, the Hurricanes had a season to rebuild the team thanks to a labor lockout that scrubbed the entire 2004-05 schedule.

    Rookie goaltender Cam Ward arrived to the NHL and became an instant stalwart, and the lineup in front of him was bolstered by the likes of veteran Rod Brind'Amour and a then-21-year-old Eric Staal.

    Carolina spiked 36 points from 76 to 112 and went from missing the playoffs to earning the Eastern Conference's second seed. The Canes beat Montreal, New Jersey and Buffalo in six, five and seven games, respectively, to reach the Stanley Cup Final. There, they went up three games to one over Edmonton before having to hold on for a 3-1 victory in Game 7 at home and the franchise's first championship.

Montreal Canadiens (1943-44)

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    Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images

    Before: 1942-43

    19-19-12 (50 points, Fourth place)


    After: 1943-44

    38-5-7 (83 points, First place)


    What Happened

    The Canadiens weren't exactly a laughingstock in 1942-43, but they weren't particularly memorable either. Montreal finished fourth in a six-team league and ended the season with a five-game loss to Boston in the opening round of the playoffs. The following year, though. That's a different story.

    Arriving fulltime to Les Habitants were both goal-scoring ace Maurice Richard and puck-stopping stalwart Bill Durnan. Richard scored 32 goals and had 54 points in his first complete NHL season, while Durnan played all 50 games as a rookie and had a 2.18 goals-against average with a pair of shutouts. 

    Come playoff time, it translated to a five-game blitz of the Toronto Maple Leafs and a four-game sweep of the Bruins to win the fourth Stanley Cup in franchise history and first since 1930-31.

Pittsburgh Penguins (2006-07)

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Before: 2005-06

    22-46-14 (56 points, Fifth place)


    After: 2007-08

    47-24-11 (105 points, Second place)


    What Happened

    Make no mistake, the rookie version of Sidney Crosby was spectacular, scoring 102 points and finishing second in the Calder Trophy race to Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin. But the second-year version was even better. And he had some help, too.

    Crosby went from Calder runner-up to Art Ross and Hart trophy winner, posting a league-best 120 points while being joined by a first-year Evgeni Malkin and his 85 points. Defenseman Sergei Gonchar was good for 67 points from the blue line and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury had 40 wins and five shutouts in his second season in the Pittsburgh net.

    The Penguins didn't translate their success to the playoffs and were bounced by the eventual Stanley Cup runner-up Ottawa Senators in five games in the opening round. But it was coming. They were themselves a beaten finalist the following season and ultimately earned a celebratory lap with the Cup two seasons later after a thrilling seven-game series with the Detroit Red Wings.

Quebec Nordiques (1992-93)

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    B Bennett/Getty Images

    Before: 1991-92

    20-48-12 (52 points, Fifth place)


    After: 1992-93

    47-27-10 (104 points, Second place)


    What Happened

    It's not just about high-profile talent.

    The Nordiques had plenty of that in 1991-92 with names like Joe Sakic, Mats Sundin and Owen Nolan finishing first, second and third in team scoring. But there was precious little behind the front lines. There was a 28-point gap between Nolan and his nearest teammate, and none of the four goalies who played at least 14 games had a record approaching .500 or a save percentage nearing .900.

    A year later, everything changed. Sundin and Sakic crashed through the 100-point barrier and though Nolan's point total went from 73 to 77, he dropped from third to fifth on the team thanks to the arrivals of Steve Duchesne (82) and Mike Ricci (78) in the trade that sent Eric Lindros to the Philadelphia Flyers. Ex-Philadelphia star Ron Hextall became a steady contributor in the Quebec net, winning 29 games.

    It didn't mean anything come playoff time, though, as the Nordiques were beaten four straight times by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round after winning the opening two games. Only two years later, the franchise was off to the Rocky Mountains, where the Colorado Avalanche won it all in their first season.

San Jose Sharks (1993-94)

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    Associated Press

    Before: 1992-93

    11-71-2 (24 points, Sixth place)


    After: 1993-94

    33-35-16 (82 points, Third place)


    What Happened

    You think it's hard for you to come to work? Imagine playing for the 1992-93 Sharks and losing 60 more times than you won. It was the second season after expansion for the franchise and was actually 15 points worse than their first season in the league.

    So there was nowhere to go but up.

    San Jose had a distinctly European feel on the ice in 1993-94, with the arrivals of Russian veterans Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov at forward and Latvian defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh on the blue line. Ozolinsh and Jeff Norton formed a menacing top defensive pair and goalie Arturs Irbe played in a league-high 74 games while winning 30 times and recording three shutouts.

    The Sharks pulled one of the biggest upsets in playoff history when they ousted the top-seeded Detroit Red Wings in the opening round of the playoffs, but lost another seven-game series to the third-seeded Toronto Maple Leafs in the subsequent round. Nevertheless, the 58-point spike in the standings still ranks as the best season-over-season improvement in NHL history.

Winnipeg Jets (1981-82)

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    Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images

    Before: 1980-81

    9-57-14 (32 points, Fifth place)


    After: 1981-82

    33-33-14 (80 points, Second place)


    What Happened

    The first season was bad enough, but the second was historic.

    The Jets won just 20 times in their inaugural trip around the NHL after they and three other teams were absorbed from the World Hockey Association, but the sophomore jinx took full effect as Winnipeg won just nine times across the 1980-81 season—just one off the record for fewest in an 80-game schedule.

    But then Dale Hawerchuk arrived. And everything changed. Or almost everything.

    The Toronto-born center took the league by storm after being plucked first overall as a precocious 18-year-old, becoming the youngest player (at the time) to reach 100 points and winning the Calder Trophy. He was complemented nicely by second-year defenseman Dave Babych, who recorded 68 points a season after he'd been picked second overall after Doug Wickenheiser.

    Journeymen goalies Ed Staniowski and Doug Soetaert combined for 33 wins and generally steady play in the net, though the 80-game success didn't translate beyond a first-round playoff loss to the St. Louis Blues. It did trigger a stretch of seven straight postseason appearances and a run of 11 in 15 seasons before the franchise relocated to Arizona in 1996.