Ranking the 5 Most Surprising Seasons in Detroit Red Wings History
In their storied 88-year history, the Detroit Red Wings have experienced unbridled joy and debilitating defeat.
The Red Wings have hoisted 11 Stanley Cups, six Presidents’ Trophies and are in the midst of a historic run of 23 consecutive playoff appearances. Year in and year out, it seems Hockeytown is labeled for Cup contention.
Although Detroit isn’t the powerhouse it has been in recent years, appearing in the NHL’s second season for sequential decades is nothing to shake a stick at.
Littered among some of the greatest seasons in team history are some pleasant surprises as well. This list is comprised of the five seasons in Red Wings history that unexpectedly astounded based on the following criteria.
Surpassing expectations, the acclaim and reward associated with the results and overcoming significant obstacles all contribute to the rankings.
Without further ado, these are the five most surprising seasons in Detroit Red Wings history.
Honorable Mention: Earn 23rd Straight Playoff Appearance Despite Injuries
The Detroit Red Wings experienced their most trying season in recent memory in 2013-14.
After an impressive playoff showing the year before, it was thought Detroit's young defensive corps would take the next step.
While the defense struggled mightily all year, injuries ravaged the rest of the lineup, adding up to a club-record 421 man games lost to injury.
Detroit's top stars Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk skated in just 45 games each, while Johan Franzen played in only 54. Prospects Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar and Riley Sheahan led the resurgence, and Detroit was able to salvage its 23rd consecutive playoff appearance.
While it was a miraculous run to the postseason for Detroit, it only managed to steal Game 1 of its first-round series with the Boston Bruins before falling in five.
The club was never able to really hit its stride all year and failed to meet the expectations stemming from the previous year's postseason success. The 2013-14 defeat showed Detroit was simply the inferior team.
It gets a nod in reference to our list but all in all was a lost season in Hockeytown.
5. 1995-96 Season: Set NHL Record with 62 Wins
The Detroit Red Wings were swept by the New Jersey Devils in the Stanley Cup Final in 1994-95 after winning the Presidents’ Trophy in a lockout-shortened, 48-game season.
Detroit finished the 1994-95 campaign with a 33-11-4 record, and expectations for the 1995-96 season were high. No one quite expected the memorable year that would follow.
Detroit won an NHL-record 62 regular-season games, finishing with just two more losses than the previous year in 34 more games played. Detroit also secured its second consecutive Presidents’ Trophy.
Sergei Fedorov won the Frank J. Selke Trophy for the league’s best defensive forward, while Scotty Bowman brought home the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year. Chris Osgood and Mike Vernon split the William M. Jennings Trophy awarded to the goalies of the team with the least goals against.
Detroit was well-recognized for its accomplishments during the regular season. However, the loss in the Western Conference Final to the Colorado Avalanche and failing to return to the Stanley Cup Final ultimately deemed the season a letdown.
Detroit still received the acknowledgement it deserved, although it did not meet the expectations brought on by the previous year’s success. The club faced little noteworthy adversity, making for a smooth ride up until the postseason loss.
The historic regular-season performance is still strong enough to land the 1995-96 season on the list as our No. 5.
4. 1977-78 Season: Detroit Wins Only Playoff Series in 17-Year Span
Having seen the postseason just once since 1966, the Detroit Red Wings made the playoffs with a 32-34-14 record.
Not impressive by any means, but Detroit would advance to the second round for the first time in 12 years after sweeping the Atlanta Flames out of the quarterfinals.
The Red Wings were in the bottom half of the league in goals for and goals against, but they managed to eliminate the Flames in their best-of-three series.
Detroit went on to steal Game 2 of its best-of-seven series with the Montreal Canadiens at the Montreal Forum, but the Red Wings would be outscored 16-4 in the final three games and bow out in five.
The Red Wings were not a formidable team by any means throughout the 1970s, and it was the club’s only series win over the course of a 17-year span (1967-1983).
It does not register as one of the Red Wings’ most memorable years, but in an era when they were known as the “Dead Wings,” it was a big boost for the team and something for the fans to be excited about.
The club exceeded all expectations that year and won a playoff series when success was an unfamiliar concept. Failure and mismanagement ran rampant for nearly two decades, and the one unexpected series win helped keep hockey relevant in Detroit.
3. 2005-06 Season: Immediate Success Under New CBA
Coming out of the full year lost to another labor dispute, the Detroit Red Wings were facing multiple dilemmas.
After years of success in trades and free agency, the Red Wings were handcuffed by the implementation of the NHL salary cap. The team also had 12 players 33 years or older on the roster, including two players over 40.
New head coach Mike Babcock brought in a blue-collar philosophy that differed from Detroit’s traditional finesse style of hockey.
With age as an expected hindrance and the likelihood of the new salary cap limiting the big spending Detroit was accustomed to, a successful season out of the lockout did not appear to be in the cards.
The Red Wings paid no mind to expectations, going on to secure the club’s fifth Presidents’ Trophy and second consecutive (over three years due to the lockout). Detroit’s 58 wins were the second highest in franchise history and best since the record 1995-96 season.
The team would lose to the Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the playoffs, ultimately ending in dissatisfaction.
The team had eight 20-goal scorers, Nick Lidstrom won his fourth Norris Trophy in five seasons and Pavel Datsyuk won his first of four consecutive Lady Byng awards.
Detroit continued its success despite the significant change in its formula for assembling a team as well as the implementation of rules designed to increase the speed of the game. It was the NHL’s oldest team by average age, but Detroit played to a level that is expected of a Red Wings team.
Although a first-round exit to the eighth-seeded Oilers was very disappointing, Detroit blended its young talent with the old in the midst of a transition that would secure a Stanley Cup title just two seasons later.
That Detroit team accomplished a lot more than the outcome would indicate, which is why it lands at the No. 3 spot.
2. 2012-13 Season: Nick Lidstrom Retires and Detroit Nearly Ousts Chicago
Coming off a disappointing first-round playoff exit to the Nashville Predators in 2011-12, the Detroit Red Wings suffered their biggest loss.
Nicklas Lidstrom retired.
For the first time since the 1990-91 season, Detroit would not have No. 5 on the blue line and was forced to start anew for the 2013 campaign.
A lockout-shortened schedule made it difficult for the team to prepare accordingly, and it struggled to find itself all season.
Detroit ultimately secured the seventh seed and a 22nd consecutive playoff appearance, but it did not come easy, as the Red Wings finished just one point ahead of both the eighth- and ninth-place teams.
It survived the Anaheim Ducks in the first round in seven tumultuous games and advanced to face the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks in the conference semifinals. Detroit would fall to Chicago in seven games with a dramatic overtime finish in the final installment.
The Red Wings were able to withstand the loss of the greatest defenseman in team history and came one shot away from the conference finals as the team's lowest playoff seed since 1984-85.
Expectations were not too high following their first-round exit the year before, but the Red Wings raised their game to new heights and declared they would not be taken lightly. The Blackhawks went on to win the Stanley Cup, but no team was tougher along the road than Detroit.
It was not the easiest of seasons, but behind its veteran leaders and production from young players, Detroit notched another storied season that ranks No. 2 on the list.
1. 1986-87 Season: Jacque Demers Leads Team to Conference Finals in First Year
Before the 1986-87 season, the Detroit Red Wings signed Jacque Demers to be their new head coach.
In his first year, the Red Wings rebounded from an abysmal 40-point season in 1985-86 to double their win total and finish second in the Norris Division.
Detroit went on to sweep the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round and eliminate the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games, but the Red Wings ultimately fell to the Edmonton Oilers in the conference finals, 4-1.
It was a turnaround for the ages in Detroit, nearly doubling its point total and improving from dead last in the league to two playoff-series wins.
Detroit reached the conference finals again the next season but lost to the same Oilers in five games.
Detroit expected improvement under Demers, but the immediate impact he had made for an incredible season for Detroit fans. He won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s coach of the year for the first time that season and would bring it home again the following year.
The surprise 1986-87 season was incredible considering the embarrassment the Red Wings suffered the year before. They didn’t win many awards or scoring titles, but going from 40 points to the conference finals is a historic turnaround.
The Red Wings have missed the playoffs only once since, and it could be argued that the 1986-87 season was the catalyst for Detroit’s continued success. It’s a fitting choice for the No. 1 spot on the list.