Seattle will be hard pressed to match the Golden Knights’ first-year success when it gets an NHL team. But they should be able to avoid Washington’s struggles.
Inside the NHL
What a perfect time to be starting a new, weekly hockey column: with the Stanley Cup Final set to open Monday night in Las Vegas.
We’ll use this space to look at the sport from a variety of angles ahead of the NHL’s expected granting of an expansion team to Seattle this fall. Having grown up in Montreal, watching championship teams and Hall of Fame players on a nightly basis starting in 1977, and later covering future professionals in the Midget AAA and junior ranks — including the Memorial Cup and World Junior Hockey Championships — I’ve seen some things and have some stories.
So hopefully that brings a fun perspective ahead of our city’s own hockey countdown. This year’s Final, of course, features the story many have already heard about in the expansion team dream that is the Vegas Golden Knights.
But an interesting twist, one reason the Knights are so good is the Washington Capitals franchise they’ll face in this best-of-seven championship round. When the Capitals were an expansion team in 1974-75 they were the worst team in NHL history.
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The Capitals won just eight games out of 80 and finished with a meager 21 points. They went just 1-39 on the road and lost a record 37 consecutive times away from home. They also were defeated by double-digit goal differentials an astounding four times. Seriously, they lost 11-1, 12-1, 10-0 and 12-1 again.
Their leading scorer was Tommy “The Bomber” Williams, a 34-year-old veteran of the Olympic-gold-medal-winning Team USA squad. No, not the “Miracle on Ice’’ gang at Lake Placid. We’re talking the 1960 gold medalists at Squaw Valley.
Williams notched 22 goals and 58 points that expansion season. The present-day Capitals scoring leader, Alex Ovechkin, had 27 more goals and there were 80 NHL players this season that topped Williams’ point total.
The expansion Capitals saw stay-at-home defenseman Bill Mikkelsen record a plus/minus total — the number of times his team scored while he was on the ice compared with opposition goals — of -82. The league’s worst plus/minus total this season was nearly half that number, a -42 registered by New York Islanders defenseman Nick Leddy.
In fact, the expansion Capitals gave up 265 more goals than they scored. That’s still an NHL record, as is their 446 goals against.
Their coach, Jim Anderson, had no previous NHL coaching experience and resigned midseason because of stomach ulcers.
You get the gist. They were horrible. Nothing like the Knights team that just went 51-24-7 to finish with 109 points — more than five times the point total the expansion Capitals had in finishing 8-67-5.
Thing is, you get what you pay for.
Capitals owner Abe Pollin paid a $6 million expansion fee for the team in 1972. That’s the equivalent of $36 million today but still a relative pittance.
Knights owner Bill Foley paid $500 million. The David Bonderman-led Seattle group is about to write the league a $650 million check.
And when you’re paying that much, you expect more in return. Much has been made of the improved expansion draft rules the Knights benefitted from.
Teams this time could protect only 11 players at most from being selected — seven forwards, three defensemen and a goalie. Or they could protect a goalie and eight other players of any combination.
During the previous expansion draft for Minnesota and Columbus in 2000, teams could protect 15 players — nine forwards, five defensemen and a goalie. Or, they could protect two goalies, three defensemen and seven forwards.
Sure, that makes a difference. It doesn’t guarantee a Stanley Cup — and believe me, Seattle (if it gets a team) won’t be replicating an expansion finals appearance in 2020-21 — but provides a solid foundation. It avoids a new team getting humiliated nightly and leads to contender status within a five-year time span if your general manager knows what he’s doing.
What happened with Vegas is that GM George McPhee had an MVP season. McPhee had actually run the Capitals from 1997-2014, guiding them into their only finals appearance in 1998 where they were swept by Detroit.
McPhee’s best expansion draft pick this year was former Pittsburgh Penguins All-Star netminder and three-time Stanley Cup winner Marc Andre-Fleury. But McPhee leveraged other picks into prearranged deals with 10 teams to avoid taking certain players. Those deals allowed him to stockpile quality players and additional draft picks later used in future moves in a way his opponents never saw coming.
McPhee yielded immediate results few GMs have experienced. And will likely ever experience again, as NHL teams are liable to see Seattle coming well in advance and be loathe to let a rival GM work the system as McPhee did.
Still, Seattle will get a far better nucleus than the Capitals had when picking the 17th or 18th best players off rosters. Far better than the 10-70-4 Ottawa Senators had in their 1992-93 expansion year as well.
Sure, it took the NHL a while to stop making expansion teams suffer. The Capitals won just 19 games in their first two seasons and didn’t have a winning record until eight years into their existence.
They remain the all-time example of what not to do in an expansion market.
The NHL couldn’t afford to repeat that mistake in Las Vegas. It can’t in Seattle, either. And fans in both markets can partially thank the guinea-pig Capitals of 43 years ago for hammering that point home.