The 1974 NHL expansion was a mistake. The WHA, the NHL’s strongest competitor was reaching its stride and draining the pool of available talent. A common theme we’ve seen with the previous expansions is that new teams struggle in their debut seasons, none more so than the two teams that joined the NHL in 1974.
Kansas City Scouts
Kansas City has a tradition of minor league hockey stretching as far back as the mid 1920s. That’s something the city should hold on to as its tradition of NHL hockey is as brief as it is forgettable. The team now known as the New Jersey Devils started its NHL campaign in Kansas City in 1974, before upping and leaving after just two miserable seasons.
And those two seasons were truly miserable. Not the worst ever, that award goes to our next team, but pretty bad. In the Scouts’ first season, the team went 15-54-11, finishing fifth (last) in the Smythe Division. The second season was even worse. You could argue that sharing a division with Vancouver, St. Louis and Chicago was always going to be tough. On paper the team had some strength, four of the 24 players picked in 1974’s expansion draft were originally first or second rounders. Additionally the team picked up future All Star Wilf Paiement second overall in the Amateur Draft.
Kansas’ first pick in the expansion draft was Michel Plasse, drafted first overall six years earlier by the Montreal Canadiens and credited with the first ever goal scored by a goaltender. Head coach Bep Guidolin somehow kept his job after the team’s woeful first season, but was replaced 45 games into the second season. Sid Abel briefly took charge until Eddie Bush coached the team for the remainder of its time in Kansas City.
With poor performances on the ice, and nobody in the stands at the Kemper Arena, the owners decided it was time to sell up. Jack Vickers’ group bought the franchise and moved the team to Colorado, the Scouts became the Rockies.
In 1974 the world had a good few years to wait before being introduced to our 4th Line Podcast co-host Carl, but his Washington Capitals were alive and… well… that’s it really. Trivia fans will know that the Caps’ debut season was the worst ever recorded in history of the NHL. Fortunately for Carl and the rest of the Caps faithful, owner Abe Pollin was in it for the long haul.
The Capitals’ early seasons had ups and downs, mostly downs. Their first season has been well documented, 8-67-5 is just awful. After eight playoff free seasons, Bryan Murray, the team’s eighth(!) head coach was the first to take Washington to the playoffs and to their first playoff win. Unfortunately Chicago won the other three games of the series and the Caps were out. But it was a start. In 1984 Murray won the Jack Adams Award.
Murray would take Washington to the next six playoffs, sometimes advancing to the dizzying heights of the second round, before being eliminated. The team struggled in 1989/90 and Murray was fired after 46 games. His brother Terry Murray took the reigns and the team to the conference finals. Those original eight seasons of poor performances lead to a good number of high draft picks, including five top three picks. Those picks did little to bring success but did prove to be vital trade pieces, Rick Green and Ryan Walter went to Montreal. Washington recieved Rod Langway, Brian Engblom, Doug Jarvis and Craig Laughlin. Langway captained the Caps for nine seasons and his number hangs in the rafters at the Verizon.
For a team with zero Stanley Cups, the Caps have had a good run of playoffs. Between 1983 and 1996 Washington reached 14 consecutive postseasons, although just once did the team make it to the Conference Finals. The Capitals’ sole appearance in the finals was in 1998, having failed to qualify the season prior, the team beat the Boston Bruins, Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres to reach the final. Despite lifting the Prince of Wales Trophy by winning the east, the Caps were no match for the Detroit Red Wings, who swept the series 4-0. Washington did well to take the second game of the series to overtime, but the Red Wings were defending Stanley Cup Champions, and the talents of Nicklas Lidstrom, Steve Yzerman and Chris Osgood were unstoppable.
The late 1990s and early 2000s were no better, the Capitals made some playoffs but were anything except consistent. 2003/04 was grim. The team won just 23 games and finished fifth in the Southeast division. It wasn’t all bad though, Washington won the draft lottery and picked Alexander Ovechkin. The following season was played in ice rinks across the world as the NHL was on strike, Ovechkin stayed in his native Russia and built his experience in the KHL. That experience paid off, in 11 seasons with the Caps, Ovechkin has scored 936 points (up to the end of the 2015/16 season). He’s had four 100+ points seasons, and was on target for a fifth had it not been for the 2012/13 lockout.
Ovechkin isn’t the only superstar playing in the nation’s captital; Nicklas Backstrom drafted in 2006 tallied 642 with the Caps by the end of last season, and leads the team in all-time assists. Goalie, beard aficionado and all round nice guy Braden Holtby has been standing guard over
Carl’s heart Washington’s goal since 2010 and is one of the better goalies in the league.
Last season the firm of Ovechkin, Backstrom and Holtby et al won 56 games, making the team a favourite for the Stanley Cup, only to find disappointment when eventual champions Pittsburgh knocked the Caps out in the second round.
Until 1997, the Caps played their home games at Maryland’s Capital Centre, before moving to the MCI center (now named the Verizon Center). Langway’s number hangs from the rafters, along side Yvon Labre, Mike Gartner and Dale Hunter. Expect Ovechkin’s number to be hoisted too when he eventually retires.
Thanks for reading, next time we’ll be looking at something a little different. As always please comment below or join in the conversation on twitter.