The top five on our list of largest improvements saw extremely unprecedented improvements from one year to the next. These are the kind of changes that many fans always dream of and hope for. The lucky fans of these teams got to experience that dramatic improvement.
5. New York Islanders – 2000-01 to 2001-02
The 2000-01 Islanders had an absolutely terrible team, finishing dead last at 30th in the NHL with a 21-51-7-3 record for a paltry 52 points. Mariusz Czerkawski scored 30 goals and Roman Hamrlik had an impressive 16 goals and 46 points on defense, but aside from that the only other note-worthy offensive forces were Dave Scatchard who was the only other 20-goal scorer, and an injured Brad Isbister, who played in just 51 games, scoring 18 goals. There was no solid goaltending anywhere, even when the Islanders tried to use their 19-year old Rick Dipietro in net.
The Islanders had a busy off-season acquiring many new players to bolster their roster, such as Alexei Yashin, Mark Parrish, and Michael Peca. All three of these forwards provided a huge boost to the offense of the Islanders and helped them rocket up the standings. In addition, the Islanders picked up Chris Osgood and signed Garth Snow as a capable backup. The combination of their much more solid goaltending and strong offense led to a 44-point surge up to 96 points and 42 wins on the season, launching from 30th to 8th in the NHL. Unfortunately for the Islanders, their moves to acquire Yashin and Parrish cost them too much and they would pay for their sacrifices in the coming years.
4. Montreal Canadiens – 1925-26 to 1926-27
The Montreal Canadiens weren’t always dominant. The 1925-26 Canadiens finished dead last in 7th place with an 11-24-1 record. They had Howie Morenz and Aurel Joliat for star power on the front lines, but lacked any great defensemen, and with the sudden death of Georges Vezina, had to fill the goaltending gap with very little time to find a good substitute.
The improvement that the Canadiens experienced going into the 1926-27 season can be explained almost entirely with one name: George Hainsworth. Hainsworth immediately made an impact in the NHL, winning the first ever Vezina trophy and bringing Montreal’s goal against to the lowest in the NHL. The Canadiens went from last place all the way up to 2nd place in the NHL on the back of Hainsworth’s great goaltending, bringing their point percentage from .319 to .659.
3. Montreal Canadiens – 1942-43 to 1943-44
Unlike many of the teams on this list, the 1942-43 Montreal Canadiens weren’t actually a bad team, they were just average. Literally. They finished with a 19-19-12 record for a .500 point percentage. They had offensive stars in Toe Blake and Elmer Lach and defensive support from a young Emile Bouchard, but lacked goaltending support, as Paul Bibeault was a below-average goaltender. As a result, the Canadiens finished an uninspiring 4th in the first “Original Six” season.
If ever there was a dream season, the 1943-44 season was it for the Montreal Canadiens. Maurice Richard exploded onto the scene, scoring 32 goals, instantly becoming Montreal’s top scorer. He teamed up with Blake and Lach, the latter who led the Canadiens in points with 72 in 48 games. The Canadiens dominated with an incredible 38-5-1 record and a 25-0 record at home. They had the best offense in the league by a small margin, but their defense was in an entirely different league. Their goals-against-per-game was at 2.18 while their closest competition in the Maple Leafs had 3.48. The reason? The Canadiens replaced Bibeault with Bill Durnan, who would hold Montreal’s primary netminding duties for several great years to come.
2. Quebec Nordiques – 1991-92 to 1992-93
The 1991-92 Quebec Nordiques finished second last in the NHL with a 20-48-12 record and a .325 point percentage. The Nordiques had young burgeoning stars in Joe Sakic, Owen Nolan, and Mats Sundin, but had no offensive depth beyond that. They also lacked any top-end defensemen and lacked any stability in net, playing four different goaltenders throughout the season, none playing more than 30 games.
The Nordiques had the second largest season-to-season improvement in terms of points in NHL history, doubling from 52 points up to 104 points. From 21st out of 22 teams, Quebec launched all the way up to fourth out of 24 teams in the 1992-93 season. Both Mats Sundin and Joe Sakic absolutely exploded, both surpassing 100 points for the first time with Sundin leading the way at 114 points. Steve Duchesne, who was acquired in the Peter Forsberg/Eric Lindros trade, set a new personal best of 82 points in 82 games, incredible numbers for a defenseman. In net, some more stability was added as Ron Hextall took the majority of the games and Stephane Fiset stepped up his game to be a capable backup. The Nordiques unfortunately lost in the 1st round of the playoffs.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins – 2005-06 to 2006-07
Despite acquiring the biggest name draft pick since Eric Lindros, the Pittsburgh Penguins were still terrible in the 2005-06 season. Sidney Crosby scored an impressive 102 points for the Penguins, but beyond Crosby, they lacked any star power up front. Mark Recchi played adequately, but he was held to just 63 games and was beginning to age at nearly 40. The Penguins also had Sergei Gonchar on the blue line and youngster Marc-Andre Fleury in net. While the Penguins had some young pieces, they were still predominately run by older players. They finished 29th in the NHL with a 22-46-14 record.
The Penguins had many players break out in the 2006-07 season, the largest of which was new rookie phenom, Evgeni Malkin. Despite getting on in years, Gonchar had an incredible 67-point season. Ryan Whitney had a solid 59-point season, giving the Penguins a solid offensive d-corps. On the defensive side, Brooks Orpik held the fort along with the help of a steadily improving Fleury. While Malkin stole the show, another rookie was making his impact as well. Jordan Staal began to make his mark as a formidable two-way player in his first season. Crosby’s 120 points is a mark that hasn’t been passed since that season. The Penguins went from 58 points and 29th place to 105 points and 9th place.
Honourable Mention: Buffalo Sabres – 1973-74 to 1974-75
The Sabres went from 32-34-12 up to an extremely dominant 49-16-15 record team in this stretch, finishing as part of a three-way tie with 113 points for first place. This improvement was largely due to the improvement of many players already in the Sabres’ system.
Honourable Mention: Edmonton Oilers – 1980-81 to 1981-82
After a mediocre .463 point percentage for the Oilers in their sophomore NHL season, they had a strong improvement in the 1981-82 season, going up to a .694 percentage. Like with the Sabres, the improvement of many players within the system was the main reason for this improvement. Grant Fuhr’s strong rookie season didn’t hurt either.