The Pittsburgh Penguins won their second consecutive Stanley Cup this week, and so now that the season is over, it's time for a Sports on Earth tradition: Our annual ranking of the league's franchises based on how tortured their fan bases are. Will Leitch, who has done these rankings for the NFL, NBA and MLB, offered up this brief explanation of the criteria:
It's a ranking of every team's fan base, from most to least spoiled. I want to find out who deserves it the most: whom you, as a disinterested party, should be cheering for next year. Lots of factors are involved here: fan loyalty, passion, historical success, particularly painful eras, near-miss title chances, current roster, any ineffable notion that just occurs to me while I'm putting this list together. I'm doing my best to give an honest accounting here. This ranking will get a lot better once all of you have had a chance to look at it and tell me what I got wrong.
When we first did the NHL rankings in 2015, I added the following addendum:
The list is a snapshot of suffering at the moment, so recent play is weighed a bit more heavily than historic success -- especially if a generation or two (or more) has passed since a team's last championship. The goal of all hockey fans is to see their team win the Cup at least once, so that's a major factor, albeit hardly the only one. One last note: I didn't consider whether a fan base is generally well-liked (or not well-liked), though I did factor in how passionate they are. It hurts a devoted fan base even more, after all, when its team's not good.
Okay, let's do this.
(All Stanley Cup numbers are since the founding of the NHL in 1917 only.)
31. Pittsburgh Penguins (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 6 Stanley Cup wins: 5 Most recent title: 2017)
The defending champ automatically drops to the bottom of the list, but Pens fans are especially spoiled: back-to-back Cups, three wins in nine seasons, and the opportunity to watch the best player on the planet.
30. Vegas Golden Knights (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 0 Stanley Cup wins: 0)
They officially exist, and soon, they'll have a roster. At this stage in the game, Golden Knights fans can't ask for much more.
29. Chicago Blackhawks (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 13 Stanley Cup wins: 6 Most recent title: 2015)
Their run of three Cups in six seasons between 2010 and 2015 -- despite the constraints of the salary cap -- was so incredible that they remain two spots from the bottom despite being not that far removed from having an owner who refused to televise home games.
28. Los Angeles Kings (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 3 Stanley Cup wins: 2 Most recent title: 2014)
The Kings haven't had a ton of success since winning the Cup in 2015: They've made the playoffs just once in three years, and lost in the first round in five games in their one appearance. Still, they've won two titles since 2012; their fans don't get to complain very loudly for a while.
27. Detroit Red Wings (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 24 Stanley Cup wins: 11 Most recent title: 2008)
We're leaving the Red Wings in roughly the same spot even though their 25-season playoff streak has ended because of how much success they've had over the past twenty years. They won Cups in 1997, 1998, 2002, and 2008, or to put it another way, their current nine year title drought is their longest in 20 years. That drought isn't likely to end soon, but the team's consistency since the late 90s keeps Wings fans from being particularly tortured.
26. Tampa Bay Lightning (Stanley Cup appearances: 2 Stanley Cup wins: 1 Most recent title: 2004)
The Lightning became the first team from the NHL's 1990s/2000s expansion to win a Cup in 2004, and they've had some very good seasons in recent years, going to the Final in 2015 and reaching the conference final in 2016. They've suffered a pair of heartbreaking conference final Game 7 losses (in 2011 and '16), but the signing of Steven Stamkos last summer eliminated the biggest question mark hovering over the franchise. That said, his deal also contributed to a salary-cap crunch that will test GM Steve Yzerman.
25. Boston Bruins (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 19 Stanley Cup wins: 6 Most recent title: 2011)
The Bruins are a less extreme version of the Blackhawks. Their 2011 Cup ended a long drought, though not quite as long as Chicago's (39 years vs. 49 years). And they've had some success over the past decade (one Cup in two Finals appearances versus three titles in three tries for Chicago). Unlike Detroit and Tampa Bay, Boston made the playoffs this year, even if they were bounced in the first round.
24. Winnipeg Jets (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 0 Stanley Cup wins: 0)
The franchise's years in Atlanta don't count here, nor does the existence of the Winnipeg Jets 1.0. And so for purposes of a list like this, the Jets are the NHL's youngest franchise, other than the Golden Knights. And so because fans haven't had much time to be tortured yet, we're dropping them below a bloc of teams that have won Cups in somewhat recent memory, but not since the 2004-05 lockout. Yes, the Jets have yet to win a playoff game -- they were swept in the opening round in their only postseason appearance so far -- but on the other hand, fans in Winnipeg get to watch Patrik Laine for the foreseeable future.
23. New Jersey Devils (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 5 Stanley Cup wins: 3 Most recent title: 2003)
The Devils have made the playoffs just once since 2010 -- a surprise run to the Final five years ago -- but the glory days of the Martin Brodeur/Scott Stevens were so glorious that we're hesitant to put them too high on this list. There's also a silver lining to the team's recent downturn: They'll pick first in this year's draft, in theory giving them a potential impact player to build around -- likely either Nolan Patrick or Nico Hischier.
22. Dallas Stars (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 2 Stanley Cup wins: 1 Most recent title: 1999)
A year after winning the Central Division, the Stars were once again outside of the playoff picture -- the seventh time in nine years they've missed the postseason. Dallas has won a Cup, but that title season was now 18 years ago. Their goaltending situation has been an expensive problem in recent years, and they're hoping the acquisition (and subsequent signing) of Ben Bishop is a big step toward solving it.
21. Colorado Avalanche (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 2 Stanley Cup wins: 2 Most recent title: 2001)
Since moving from Quebec, the Avalanche have won two Stanley Cups and reached the conference finals in four other seasons. But that success all came during the Sakic/Forsberg/Roy era, and things have gotten ugly in recent years, despite the presence of some good young players. It especially sings that Sakic himself hasn't been able to turn things around, and that Roy was such a disaster as head coach.
20. Carolina Hurricanes (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 2 Stanley Cup wins: 1 Most recent title: 2006)
The Hurricanes moved from Hartford 20 years ago, and they do have a Stanley Cup. But they've been pretty lousy since, making the playoffs just once that title season in 2005-06. They might be higher on this list, but judging by attendance figures over the past few seasons (including a league-worst average of 11,776 last year), Hurricanes fans aren't suffering through all this bad hockey; they're just staying away entirely.
19. Montreal Canadiens (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 29 Stanley Cup wins: 22 Most recent title: 1993)
The Habs are consistently one of the trickier teams to rank on this list. They're the most successful franchise in league history, but next spring will mark a quarter-century since their last Stanley Cup -- an eternity for such a rabid fan base. The team has been fairly competitive in recent seasons, though it hasn't translated to much playoff success. The Habs also move up a couple spots on the list this year because not only did they trade P.K. Subban, Montreal fans had to watch him immediately help lead his new team to the Cup Final.
18. Nashville Predators (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 1 Stanley Cup wins: 0)
It's good to be a Preds fan right now. They just finished the best playoff run in franchise history, and even hung with a great Penguins team in the Final. Best of all, they showed how awesome the atmosphere inside Bridgestone Arena can be, and maybe once and for all put an end to the idea that Nashville isn't a good city for hockey. None of this is happening suddenly, by the way: The team has been pretty good for some years now, as have attendance figures. The stakes are raised now, though: This spring had a happy-to-be-there feel, but now that fans have been exposed to the drama and tension of a truly deep playoff run for the first time, they're going to want to experience that again -- this time with a Cup victory.
17. Anaheim Ducks (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 2 Stanley Cup wins: 1 Most recent title: 2007)
Unlike the Predators, Ducks fans are well past the point of being happy with a solid playoff run that doesn't result in a Cup victory. Anaheim's finished first in five straight seasons, but haven't returned to the Final since winning in 2007. The Ducks have lost more Game 7s than any fanbase should have to endure, and even a head coaching change hasn't made the difference. Having said all that, they're a relatively young franchise that has won a Cup. Things could be worse.
16. Minnesota Wild (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 0 Stanley Cup wins: 0)
Last year, I wrote that of the three teams that entered the league between 1998 and 2000 that are still in their original cities, the Wild were the least tortured. The logic: They've never had to endure too terrible a stretch, even if they've never come all that close to a Cup. Now that Predators fans have gotten to enjoy a deep playoff run, the Wild move ahead of Nashville.
15. Edmonton Oilers (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 7 Stanley Cup wins: 5 Most recent title: 1990)
In past rankings, we had to weigh the Oilers' incredible glory days with their perpetual rebuild -- one that never blossomed into anything despite so many top overall picks. But Connor McDavid is the real deal, a young core is in place, they came within a win of the Western Final and they even now play in a shiny new arena. It's been 27 years since Edmonton won a title, but things are looking up.
14. New York Rangers (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 11 Stanley Cup wins: 4 Most recent title: 1994)
It sure appears that the Rangers' window to win the Cup -- with the core currently in place, at least -- has closed. That's true even if Henrik Lundqvist plays at an elite level, which is far from certain at this point. The Rangers have had some very good seasons over the past decade, but the fact remains that they've won just one title in 77 years. The 1994 title erased a lot of misery in New York, but the Blackhawks' recent success means the Rangers now have the fewest Cup wins of any of the so-called Original 6 teams.
13. Calgary Flames (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 3 Stanley Cup wins: 1 Most recent title: 1989)
It's hard not to compare Calgary to their rivals in Edmonton, if only because of their similarly long Stanley Cup drought. Flames fans haven't been teased (and subsequently let down) quite as much as Oilers fans, but they also don't have anything in their franchise history that compares to what the Oilers did during the days of Gretzky and Messier. And though the Flames are in good hands with Brian Burke, the future isn't quite as bright as it is in Edmonton, either.
12. Ottawa Senators (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 1 Stanley Cup wins: 0)
The Senators have reached the Final just once, but they've also missed the playoffs only four times since 1996, and this year reached the Conference Final for the first time in a decade. In other words, not a lot of big success, but not a lot of prolonged suffering, either.
11. Florida Panthers (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 1 Stanley Cup wins: 0)
Florida's a slightly younger franchise than Ottawa, and they've also been to a Final. But the Panthers have made the playoffs five times in franchise history, and haven't been past the first round since their run to the Cup Final in 1996. The pleasure of watching Jaromir Jagr on a nightly basis only goes so far.
10. Columbus Blue Jackets (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 0 Stanley Cup wins: 0)
The Blue Jackets' days as a laughingstock have been over for a while, and if you squint a little, this year might have been the breakthrough their fans have been waiting for. They won 16 straight games from late November until early January -- easily the new high point in the history of the franchise -- and their 108 points was 15 more than any previous season. Postseason success, however, has eluded Columbus, and thanks to the NHL's playoff format, they drew the eventual champion Penguins in the first round. After 16 seasons, fans in Columbus are still waiting for their first playoff series victory, and as a result, I think I've underestimated how rough they've had it in past rankings.
9. Philadelphia Flyers (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 8 Stanley Cup wins: 2 Most recent title: 1975)
For a fan base as passionate as the Flyers', 42 years without a title is a brutal drought. Only two teams ahead of them on this list have won any titles -- and each of those fan bases has suffered in significant, if different, ways.
8. San Jose Sharks (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 1 Stanley Cup wins: 0)
One of the questions that comes up a lot on a list like this is whether it's worse to come close and lose in heartbreaking fashion, or never come close to winning at all. Considering San Jose's position requires a variation on that question: Is it better to be consistently good but never win, or merely be lousy and rarely contend. The Sharks, after all, have finished first six times in their 25 years of existence. They've made the playoffs in all but six seasons. And they've reached the conference finals four times, including a trip to the Cup Final last year. But despite all the regular season and postseason wins, they've never won a title.
7. Arizona Coyotes (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 0 Stanley Cup wins: 0)
Coyotes fans haven't had much to cheer for since the team relocated from Winnipeg, but the team is so high on this list because those fans have had to so much uncertainty over whether the team would relocate elsewhere. For what it's worth, current owner Andrew Barroway is reportedly committed to keeping the team in Arizona.
6. New York Islanders (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 5 Stanley Cup wins: 4 Most recent title: 1983)
The Islanders' case is similar to the Oilers, in that each had a bona fide dynasty decades ago, and hasn't had a ton of success since. But it's not just that the Islanders haven't won -- or come close to winning -- a Cup since the mid 1980s. It's that fans have to put up with so much drama. This is the franchise of John Spano and GM Mike Milbury. Of Rick DiPietro's 15-year contract and the fisherman mascot. They've won just one playoff series since 1993, and they play in an arena in which hockey is an afterthought. Oh, and that arena reportedly wants them out, raising real questions about where the team will play long-term.
5. St. Louis Blues (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 3 Stanley Cup wins: 0)
Of the 1967 expansion franchises still in existence, the Blues are the only one without a Stanley Cup win. They've had plenty of chances, too: They've missed the postseason just eight times in franchise history. They got to the conference final last season, but they haven't even reached the Final since 1970.
4. Vancouver Canucks (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 3 Stanley Cup wins: 0)
Each year, we have to consider how much weight to give to specific, brutal losses. And each year, in the case of the Canucks, the answer is: a lot. The Canucks have never won a Cup, but twice they've reached Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, losing in 1994 and again in 2011. Factor in a good fan base and some very good regular-season teams over the past decade, and the Canucks get a high place on this list.
3. Buffalo Sabres (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 2 Stanley Cup wins: 0)
Great fan base. Great hockey city. No titles. Worse still, they've only reached the Final twice, and one of them ended in controversial fashion. With front office and coaching changes this off-season, Buffalo will try to get the right group in place in order to build a team around Jack Eichel. But they also haven't reached the postseason 2011, and so until that happens, they remain one of the three most tortured franchises.
2. Washington Capitals (Stanley Cup Final appearance: 1 Stanley Cup wins: 0)
I strongly considered putting Washington atop this list. That's how bad the past two seasons have been. To recap: The Capitals have never won a title, and have reached the Final only once, in 1998. Since drafting Alexander Ovechkin, they've won their division seven times, and on three occasions they've had the best record in hockey, including in each of the last two years. And yet not only have they not won a Cup in the Ovechkin era, they haven't even reached the conference finals. This year's second-round loss was especially brutal: They trailed 3-1 in the series, battled back to tie it, and then lost a heartbreaker in Game 7 to Pittsburgh, a franchise that's built around their own generational player who has now captured three Stanley Cups.
1. Toronto Maple Leafs (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 19 Stanley Cup wins: 13 Last title: 1967)
It's been 50 years since the Leafs last won a title -- a long time for any team's fan base, but an especially cruel drought considering how obsessive Maple Leafs fans are. Five decades without a title gets Toronto the top spot on this list, even when there's a lot of optimism about the future, with Auston Matthews leading the way. This drought, in this city, simply trumps anything that another team's fans have been through.