It seems fitting that at the summer solstice (June 21) the NHL landscape will change up yet again.
The NHL has added its 31st franchise in the Vegas Golden Knights and come Wednesday, the Knights will start plucking the best pieces from other teams that are made available. There is also a lot of predicted wheeling and dealing, so it should be interesting.
Ever since 1967, when the league made its boldest move by adding six more clubs to the “Original Six”, the NHL has sought out new markets.
These forays have resulted in hockey — some good, some bad — being played in California, Florida, Missouri and and Georgia, to name a few otherwise non-hockey related places.
Some of those expansion clubs fared decently in their first season and have gone on to greater success, while others had middling to awful results and either thrived later or died on the vine.
We have looked at 15 teams’ first-year records and give you the good and bad and a decision on whether they have been successful since, or just plain awful. We’ll start with the worst ever first-year records and go to the best.
15. Washington Capitals (worst, 1974-75): 8-67-5
Yup, the expansion Washington Capitals of 1974-75 are officially the worst first-year team on our list (so why not start with worst?). The Caps entered the 1974 expansion draft with the second overall pick (the Kansas City Scouts were first) and they opted for Toronto goalie Ron Low as their premier selection. From there it was a smorgasbord of NHL cast-offs and once-bright-lights. Tommy Williams, a 34-year-old veteran of 13 NHL/WHA seasons (and who wasn’t in the draft but was a free agent from the WHA) led this dismal eight-game winning bunch with 58 points in 73 games. This team was so bad that hard-luck defenceman Bill Mikkelson logged a team worst -82, in just 59 games. In one particularly miserable stretch of the season, the Capitals lost 17 games in a row, before winning two of their last five to get to eight wins. In all, they scored just 181 goals in 80 games (worst in the league), while surrendering 446 (also worst). Overall, though, we call the Capitals a success since that awful first campaign.
14. Ottawa Senators (worst, 1992-93): 10-70-4
The pickings, at least from a skaters’ standpoint, were fairly slim at the 1992 draft. While established clubs could protect 14 players, this left little in the way of meat for the Senators and fellow new club the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Ottawa Senators would go on to lose the second most games in NHL history with 70, against just 10 wins an four ties. The team’s best player was height challenged veteran defenceman Norm Maciver, who had 63 points in 80 games, but was also -46 (on a team that scored a league worst 202 goals and allowed 395). This team was so bad that career pugilist Mike Peluso scored the fifth most goals on the team (15), while leading Ottawa in penalty minutes at a whopping 318. After winning their first game ever, 5-3 over the Montreal Canadiens, the Sens wouldn’t win their second game of the year until game 23, losing 19, tying one and losing one in OT. Overall, however, the Sens have been a relative success since that demoralizing debut.
13. New York Islanders (worst, 1972-73): 12-60-6
Hard to believe that just eight years after having one of the worst ever expansion records, the Islanders would be hoisting the first of four straight Stanley Cups. Some of the foundation for those Cup-winning Isles teams was laid in 1972, when New York (along with Atlanta), picked up a young Billy Smith to play goal, as well as giving playing time to Lorne Henning and youngster Bob Nystrom. This particular Islanders team would finish dead last at 12-60-6, a full 35 points behind expansion cousins the Flames. And Bill Mikkelson started his curse on expansion clubs being the Islanders worst plus-minus player at -54 (he was an all-time lousy -82 with Washington in 1974-75). In one horrible stretch of the 72-73 campaign, New York lost 12 straight games, by a combined score of 50-13. Since that awful debut season, we have to say the Islanders have been fairly successful.
12. Atlanta Thrashers (worst, 1999-00): 14-57-7-4
It really was a dog’s breakfast of players the expansion Thrashers had to choose from during the 1999 NHL expansion draft. Each franchise was allowed to protect either one goaltender, five defensemen, and nine forwards or two goaltenders, three defensemen, and seven forwards. One player who wasn’t picked up in that draft was Andrew Brunette, who played with the expansion Nashville Predators the season before and would end up leading Atlanta in scoring with 23 goals and 27 assists in 81 games. Otherwise this misshapen team that included ill-fated former first overall selection Patrik Stefan (1999), would go on to win just 14 of 82 games. In fact, the Thrashers would win just four of their last 42 games, a stretch that included a 16-game winless streak early in 2000 as well as a 10-game losing streak through late February, early March. As we all know, the Atlanta market crashed and burned and the team is now in Winnipeg.
11. Kansas City Scouts (worst, 1974-75): 15-54-11
We’re not sure what kind of voodoo the Kansas City Scouts employed during a 1974-75 season that saw them finish with seven more wins than expansion cousins Washington. Forced to draw from the same pool of cast-offs as the Capitals, the Scouts managed to avoid long losing streaks until the last quarter of the season, when they won just two of their final 20 games. While the Capitals would go on to survive their NHL debut debacle, the Scouts couldn’t draw flies to the Kemper Arena in Kansas City and would eventually move to Colorado to become the Rockies and then eventually New Jersey as the Devils. The Scouts would be even worse in their second and last season in K.C., going 12-56-12, the worst record in K.C./Colorado/New Jersey franchise history.
10. Oakland Seals (worst, 1967-68): 15-42-17
When the NHL expanded for the first time in many decades in 1967, it was met with as much skepticism as acceptance. Quickly, the league went from Original Six and no teams west of Chicago to 12 teams, including two in California. The California Seals, so named at expansion then changed to Oakland Seals midway through the 1967-68 season, drafted two goalies like everyone else during the expansion draft, then made Toronto legend Bob Baun their first pick on defence. Quite a few former Leafs were among the Seals first picks, including defenceman Kent Douglas, forward Billy Harris, right winger Terry Clancy, defenceman Autry Erickson, goalie Gary “Suitcase” Smith and center Mike Laughton. If not for the heroics of former Montreal Canadiens’ netminder Charlie Hodge (who won two Vezinas with the Habs), things could have been much. much worse that first season in the Bay Area. As it turned out, the Seals moved to Cleveland in the mid-70s and then were folded into the Minnesota North Stars, who are now in Dallas.
9. San Jose Sharks (worst, 1991-92): 17-58-5
Through a very complicated system, the expansion San Jose Sharks, owned by the infamous Gund Brothers, were stocked with many former Minnesota North Stars players (who were once employed by the Gunds). As it turned out, the pool of players from Minnesota in the dispersal draft and then the following expansion draft were a little underwhelming. So much so that the Sharks leading scorer during that dismal 1991-92 campaign was their first round draft pick (second overall), Pat Falloon. He had 59 points in 79 games, 13 more than veteran right winger Brian Mullen. The Sharks stumbled out of the gate that season, winning just one of their first 16 games, including a 13-game losing streak. The team also employed some of the NHL’s all-time goons, including Link Gaetz (328 PIM in just 48 games), Jeff Odgers (217 PIM in 61 games) and Craig Coxe (19 PIM in 10 games). The Sharks would overcome that horrible first year to become one of the more stable NHL franchises, even if they haven’t won a Stanley Cup yet.
8. Tampa Bay Lightning (worst, 1992-93): 23-54-7
Before they won a Stanley Cup in 2004, fans in Tampa had to endure some pretty bad hockey. While their first season in the league wasn’t their worst (they were 17-55-10 in 1997-98), that first Bolts team was only slightly better than expansion cousins, the Ottawa Senators. The saving grace for the Bolts that season was the drafting of Roman Hamrlik first overall in the entry draft and the selection of Brian Bradley from Toronto in the expansion draft. Bradley would be instrumental in ensuring the Lightning would win more games than Ottawa, scoring 86 points in 80 games, including 42 goals. Hamrlik would be a very good offensive defenceman (with huge defensive liabilities) for a few seasons, helping to define the early Lightning as a team. The biggest story that first year was the debut, in the pre-season, of Manon Rheaume in goal.
7. Minnesota Wild (best, 2000-01): 25-39-13-5
Considering what they had to work with that first year, the Wild’s 2000-01 campaign can be considered a success. While they scored just 168 goals in 82 games, the Wild would allow just 210 against. They finished with 68 points, too, putting them just behind expansion cousins Columbus and ahead of established teams, the Islanders, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. The team did draft future star Marian Gaborik that year and the teenaged winger finished with 18 goals and 18 assists in 71 games, just three points behind 31-year-old veteran Scott Pellerin. Former Dallas Stars netminder Manny Fernandez enjoyed one of the better seasons by an expansion goaltender, fashioning a 19-17-4 record, 2.24 goals against average and .920 save percentage. The Wild are still going strong in the State of Hockey and will continue to be a force in the immediate future.
6. Hartford Whalers (best, 1979-80): 27-34-19
Of all the expansions since 1967, the inclusion of four WHA franchises in 1979 was probably the most interesting. It was interesting in that NHL teams could reclaim some of their former players (like Chicago getting Bobby Hull back) while losing some players to the new teams, including Hartford, Edmonton, Quebec and Winnipeg. The Whalers boasted snipers Mike Rogers (105 points in 80 games) and Blaine Stoughton (100 points in 80 games), as well as veterans Dave Keon (62 points in 76 games) and Gordie Howe (41 points in 80 games as a 51-year-old). The Whalers fared very well that first campaign, finishing with 73 points and making the playoffs. Unfortunately for that veteran laden Whalers squad, they would face the defending Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs, where they would go out in three straight. The Whalers/Carolina Hurricanes can be considered a success, based on a Stanley Cup for the franchise in 2006.
5. Nashville Predators (best, 1998-99): 28-47-7
Yes, the Predators finished with just 63 points in their first season, however, considering the deck they were handed by the league during the ’98 expansion, Nashville did very well. The names available were of the pedestrian variety, including Cliff Ronning (who would lead them in scoring that first year with 53 points), Scott Walker (40 points), Andrew Brunette (31 points) and Sergei Krivokrasov (48 points). But, that first season would get the ball rolling on a model NHL franchise that finally got to to its first Stanley Cup final this year. That 98-99 team featured future defensive star Kimmo Timonen, the first game by first round pick David Legwand, and the first full season by goaltender Tomas Vokoun. While the Preds didn’t win more games than they lost, they avoided any lengthy losing streaks and played it tough until the end.
4. Columbus Blue Jackets (best, 2000-01): 28-39-9-6
The Blue Jackets wouldn’t make the playoffs during their first season, but they were no pushovers for their brethren in the old Central Division during the 2000-01 season. Comprised of mostly also-rans from established teams after the expansion draft, the Jackets scored by committee and got decent goaltending from 33-year-old veteran Ron Tugnutt, who went 22-25-5 with a 2.44 goals against average and .917 save percentage. Geoff Sanderson led all Columbus scorers with 56 points (30 goals), while their first round pick from the entry draft, defenceman Rostislav Klesla (4th overall) made his NHL debut and scored two goals in eight games. After a fairly dismal first half (they were 13-22-4-2 over their first 41 games), the Preds went 15-17-5-4 over their last 41 to make their first foray in the league respectable. This past season’s resurgence is evidence that hockey is alive and well in central Ohio.
3. Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (best, 1993-94): 33-46-5
The 1993-94 Ducks season can be considered a success on many levels, despite the fact the team didn’t make the playoffs. First, they took future superstar Paul Kariya with their first round pick (4th overall) in the entry draft. He would be instrumental 10 years later when the Ducks went to their first Stanley Cup final. The team also used spare parts like Terry Yake (leading scorer with 52 points) and Bob Corkum (51 points) to keep themselves in the hunt for much of the season. As with most expansion clubs, the Mighty Ducks started slowly, going 5-13-2 in their first 20. However, they went 28-33-3 the rest of the way to make things very interesting in the West (they missed the playoffs by 11 points but had as many wins as playoff bound San Jose). It wouldn’t take long for the franchise to taste success, as they won a Stanley Cup just 14 years after the ’93 expansion draft.
2. Florida Panthers (best, 1993-94): 33-34-17
The Panthers were oh so close to making the playoffs in their first season in the NHL, missing out by a single point to the New York Islanders. Like the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, the Cats had to settle for other team’s scraps, but they did draft wisely, going after savvy veterans Scott Mellanby (leading scorer with 30 goals and 30 assists), Brian Skrudland (40 points), Gord Murphy (leading defensive scorer with 43 points) and elite goalie John Vanbiesbrouck (21-25-11, 2.53 GAA and .924 save percentage). The Panthers didn’t start out like a house on fire, going 17-17-8 through their first 42 games and could have done themselves some favors by winning a few more of the 13 overtime games they were involved in (Florida ended up tied in eight, won two and lost three). After that start, their record read 16-17-9, with another nine overtime ties. In just two more seasons, though, the Panthers would be in the Stanley Cup finals.
1. Philadelphia Flyers (best, 1967-68): 31-32-11
No expansion team since 1967 has had a winning record their first year, but the Flyers did come close in 1967-68. The new team’s first best pick in the expansion draft was getting great young goaltenders Bernie Parent and Doug Favell, who were both 22 at the time (to the detriment of the Boston Bruins). While they weren’t blessed with explosive firepower up front, the team would feature future Stanley Cup winners Gary Dornhoefer (second leading scorer in 67-68 with 43 points), D Joe Watson, D Ed Van Impe, F Simon Nolet and of course Parent. The Flyers also established their brand of in-your-face hockey that season, as Dornhoefer, Forbes Kennedy and Van Impe all logged over 100 penalty minutes for the future “Broad Street Bullies.” The Flyers did top the new West Division during the 67-68 season, but would bow to the expansion cousins the St. Louis Blues in a thrilling seven-game first round playoff series.