Dismal Debuts: Looking back at the worst NHL expansion teams

Check out the first Ottawa Senators game in their expansion year from 1992. They hosted the Montreal Canadiens and the opening ceremony was lavish, and filled with Canadian star power.

Next year, the NHL will welcome a new expansion team to the standings when the Las Vegas TBDs hit the ice for their inaugural campaign.

Of course, there are still plenty of unknowns when it comes to this franchise. While we won’t really know what the team will look like until the expansion draft, we won’t really be able to properly assess the team until this time next year when they’re a few weeks into the 2017-18 season.

Losing records are pretty much expected when it comes to icing a brand new team. While some clubs had quick success (we see you, Florida Panthers), most others fell flat to start their existence.

We decided to take a closer look, in no particular order, at some of the worst debuts from NHL expansion clubs.

(NOTE: To simplify the process, we’ll limit this to expansion teams that are still in existence in their original form today.)

Ottawa Senators, 1992-93
Record: 10–70–4
Ontario hockey fans rejoiced when the Senators returned to the league in 1992, and even got to cheer on their club to victory in their very first game (see highlights at the top of this article).

But that joy quickly turned to disappointment with a loss in Game 2 which started a run of them losing 20 of 21 games. They were so bad, they went on to challenge the 1974-75 Capitals for the title of worst debut season ever. (More on those Capitals later, of course.)

At the end of 82 games, the Senators — later called “a bunch of misfits nobody wanted” by then-winger Jody Hull — held records for the longest home (11 games) and road (38!) losing streaks, and tied the Capitals for fewest road victories with — yup — just one W in the guest house.

Fun fact: To track the team’s steady stream of losses, the Ottawa Citizen implemented a standing feature, which was updated every post-game day called “Road to the Yelnats Puc.”

Things improved when: It took five seasons, but the Senators made it to “perennial playoff team” status starting in 1996-97, when they earned a berth and kicked off an impressive 11-year run of post-season contention.

Tampa Bay Lightning, 1992-93
Record: 23-54-7
OK, so the Lightning actually did OK, considering how tough it is to win with a completely new club. They even skyrocketed to the top of the standings after a few weeks of existence.

But then reality hit. And road trips. All told, the franchise’s 53-point debut wasn’t so bad compared to some of the others on this list, but we’re including it due to the roller-coaster ride and unpredictability that was their first decade.

Fun fact: The Lightning come from humble beginnings — their first home ice was the tiny 10,425-seat Expo Hall, located at the Florida State Fairgrounds.

Things improved when: In their fourth season, the Lightning made their first playoff appearance, but were eliminated in six games. It didn’t strike any momentum, though, as the club didn’t return to return to the post-season until 2003 — the year after that, they won their first Stanley Cup.

San Jose Sharks, 1991-92
Record: 17-58-5
Today, California could actually be considered a pretty strong state for hockey. A few decades ago? Not so much. When the Sharks arrived in town, many hockey fans didn’t quite know what to expect.

The Sharks’ debut campaign fell flat, to the tune of 39 total points, but the novelty of the new game at the Cow Palace was the focus over the losing record. The proof is in the numbers — the sales numbers…

Fun fact: Despite the poor performance on the ice, the franchise had the league’s highest merchandise sales total ($150 million), accounting for 27 per cent of the NHL’s total merchandise sales. (They ranked second only behind the Chicago Bulls across all pro sports.)

Things improved when: Sharks fans didn’t need to wait long for their first trip to the post-season, qualifying as the eighth seed in their third year. They upset the heavily favoured Detroit Red Wings in seven games before being eliminated by the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven.

Washington Capitals, 1974-75
Record: 8-67-5
With just 21 points in their first season, the Capitals suffered the worst premiere campaign of any NHL expansion club to date. They had just one win on the road — a record that still stands along with the Senators, who matched it in 1993 — and is usually the first team that comes to mind when you think about blunderous beginnings.

Fun fact: You may have heard the great story about the events after that single road win, involving a garbage can, a marker, and a little locker room parade: “Tommy Williams had gotten this little trashcan out of the dressing room, and he had a bunch of guys sign it,” former Capitals defenceman Yvon Labre recounted, as written in The Washington Post. “Him and a couple other guys [brought it out] in the Oakland rink, and were skating around with it. They called it the Stanley Can.”

Things got better when: It took a while, but the Capitals finally made it to the playoffs in 1983, losing in Round 1 to the dynastic New York Islanders. They wouldn’t miss the post-season again until 1997.

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