Up until recently, being an expansion team in the NHL often meant many seasons of struggles before organizations were able to get some legs underneath them. With limited talent through the 1970’s, followed by vast expansion and existing teams taking advantage of loopholes in the 1990’s, teams were seemingly set up to fail out of the gate.
Number 5- San Jose Sharks (1991-92)
The San Jose Sharks had a bit of an edge when they sat down for the 1991 expansion draft. The Gund brothers, who owned the Minnesota North Stars, wanted to relocate the franchise to San Jose, but they were denied. Instead they bought the rights to start a new franchise in the Bay Area if they could sell the North Stars, which they did. During the expansion draft, the Sharks were allowed to pick 14 players and two goaltenders from the North Stars, and then both franchises filled the remaining part of their rosters during the expansion draft. It was a mediocre expansion draft, and they followed that up by taking Pat Falloon in the first round of the 1991 entry draft. The Sharks later acquired top defenseman Doug Wilson, but it wasn’t enough to salvage their opening season as they finished 17-58-5 with 39 points.
Number 4- Atlanta Thrashers (1999-00)
Atlanta was awarded their second NHL franchise in 1997, 11 years after the Flames were relocated to Calgary. Unfortunately for the Thrashers, the second go-around in Atlanta didn’t go much better than the first. Their expansion draft happened in 1999, one year after Nashville, and they didn’t manage to snag many valuable players. Follow that up with a miserable 1999 entry draft and the Thrashers were doomed out of the gate. Going just 14-57-7-4 during the season, they finished at the bottom of the league with only 39 points, 15 points lower than the second-last place Lightning. It stands as the worst record in the NHL since they implemented a three point system. Their struggles did kind of pay off however, they drafted Dany Heatley second overall in 2000 and Ilya Kovalchuk first overall in 2001.
Number 3- New York Islanders (1972-73)
The NHL beat out the WHA to place a team in Long Island in 1971 and was set to start play during the 1972 season. The team named Bill Torrey as GM and later Phil Goyette as the first head coach. During the expansion draft, they did manage to select Ed Westfall, Gerry Hart, as well as future legend Billy Smith, and their first entry draft was highlighted by Bobby Nystrom and Billy Harris. Torrey approached the expansion draft differently than most general managers during that era, opting to divert from acquiring veterans and rather build through the draft. Even though that mentality would play off a decade later, it made their early years abysmal. The Islanders wrapped up their first season with a 12-60-6 record and just 30 points, finishing dead last in the East Division. The losing did pay off, however, as they drafted superstar Denis Potvin in the 1973 draft.
Number 2- Ottawa Senators (1992-93)
58 years after the original Senators relocated to St. Louis in 1934, Ottawa was once again awarded a franchise. The Senators flubbed the expansion draft, selecting four players that were ineligible to be drafted, and most of the players they did select were journeyman AHLers, rather than younger prospects. They named Mel Bridgman as general manager, a role he had never held previously, and chose Rick Bowness as head coach. The Senators won their season opener against the Canadiens, then went on a 21-game losing streak. They set the NHL record for most consecutive road losses with 38, and least amount of road victories with just one. They ended the season with a 10-70-4 record with 24 points, the second worst inaugural season in NHL history.
Number 1- Washington Capitals (1974-75)
The Capitals entered the NHL in 1974 and, under the watch of head coach Jim Anderson, had the worst first season in NHL history. Under the rules of the 1974 expansion draft, teams were able to protect 15 players and two goaltenders. Between the NHL’s over-expansion and the rise of the WHA, there was an extreme lack of talent for the Capitals to choose from. During the 1974-75 season the Capitals went just 8-67-5 for just 21 points, with two separate 17-game losing streaks and one reaching 14 games. Anderson didn’t survive the season and was replaced by Milt Schmidt, who was also serving as general manager.
Winnipeg Jets (1979-80)
The Winnipeg Jets entered the league in 1979 when the NHL merged with the WHA and, after complicated dispersal and expansion drafts, their dominate team that was put together during their WHA days was gutted. The Jets lost three of their top six scorers and the main player they protected, Scott Campbell, was forced to retire due to asthma problems. They ended the 1979-80 season with a 20-49-11 record, which was still better than their nine-win season the following season.
Tampa Bay Lightning (1992-93) 23-54-7 53 points
Winning an expansion bid in 1990, the Tampa Bay Lightning played their inaugural season in 1992. Between the Sharks expansion draft the season before, and this one being shared with the Ottawa Senators, the talent available was not great. Other teams were getting creative trying to bend the rules of the expansion draft, which led to even less talented players hitting the draft board. When all was said and done, the Lightning wrapped up their first season with a 23-54-7 record with 53 points, which was good enough for last place in the Norris Division. It was still 29 points more than the Senators had the same season.
By: Dan Esche (@DanTheFlyeraFan)
photo credit: NHL.com