Capitals vs Golden Knights: Analyzing NHL Expansion Changes

The Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights faced each other for the 2018 Stanley Cup championship and the team from America’s capital city  won for the first first time in its history, ending a long 44-year wait. For Vegas, even though runners-up, they had a great inaugural season. There has been a lot of talk about the amazing season the expansion team had so we thought we would compare the Caps first year and the Knights first year and what has changed over time.  In the end, its hard not to be amazed by the accomplishments of the team from the desert even though they lost to their new rivals. img_5288

First Year Records Differ

In 1972, the NHL approved a franchise for Washington, D.C.  In the 1974-75 season, the Capitals made their NHL debut along with the Kansas City Scouts, who ultimately became the New Jersey Devils. Even today, the Caps franchise holds the record has the worst start among expansion teams, with a 8-67-5 (wins, losses and ties which was the records standard at the time); well below the league average then of 80-33-13. The Scouts, on the other hand, recorded 41 points with a 15-54-11, while the Caps ended the season with  only 21 points. Other stats the Caps set for the worst start ever and for which they still hold the “record’ includes:

  • Most losses as a visitor: 39/40;
  • Most consecutive away losses: 37;
  • Most consecutive losses: 17;
  • The worst home record of  7-28-5. (win/loss/tie);
  • They scored 181 goals and surrendered 446; the most goals against in league history, and
  • A -265 differential, the lowest in NHL history.

Fast forward to 2016, when the NHL approved the bid for an expansion team in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Vegas Golden Knights would become the 31st member of the most famous hockey league in the world, and the first addition since 2000, when Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild joined the NHL. In comparison, the Knights had a much better start than the Capitals. They broke all kinds of records in their inaugural season, ending with the best performance in the history of an expansion team. Among their accomplishments according to the NHL are:

  • Won more games faster then any other NHL expansion team;
  • Most points recorded by an expansion team;
  • With a 51-24-7 record at the end of the year, the Knights ended the season with the best record of any NHL expansion team;
  • Highest winning percentage,
  • First expansion team to make it to the playoffs, and
  • First expansion team to win a Conference championship and make it to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Capitals only made it to the playoffs for the first time in their history in 1983. he St. Louis Blues reached the final of the Stanley Cup in its expansion season but the design of the 1967-68 playoff bracket meant they would when they reached the finals they were playing against an Original Six. Instead of Eastern and Western conferences of today, the 1967-86 playoff bracket was split between East and West divisions, with the East Division having the Original Six teams as its members and the West Division all the expansion teams. No team has gone as far, as fast as the Golden Knights.

Change in Draft Procedures

Some hockey fans believe that the Nevada franchise benefited from the new structure of the expansion draft. In the end, they had a brilliant general manager in George McPhee. (GMGM) who has a proven record of building teams, as seen by his experience with the Washington Capitals. There were differences though to the 1974 draft and the 2017 draft.

The 1974 expansion draft was different because it involved two teams and there were  more players to move to the new teams. Between the Capitals and Scouts, the NHL needed 44 skaters and four goalies (22 and two each) in total. Each existing franchise could protect 15 players and two goalies. Four of those teams were allowed to protect their goalies. Each team could lose three players and maybe one goaltender. With the sum of all the those factors, the Capitals faced the bitter side of the expansion.

The available talent had its limitations as the existing NHL teams were able to develop a strategy to keep their more experienced players. Also in competition for those top players was the World Hockey Association (WHA), a rival league of the NHL which was founded in 1972, two seasons before the Capitals, and ending in 1979. Defying NHL’s supremacy, the WHA was able to pull 67 players from the rival league, including superstar and top scorer Bobby Hull, who signed with the Winnipeg Jets for a ten-year $2.7 million contract, the largest offer in hockey history at the time. In addition to that, Hull was paid $1 million of  up front, becoming the first hockey player to earn $1 million in a single year and the first millionaire hockey player. The WHA also brought in many European players, who were a minority in the NHL which was dominated by Americans and Canadians.

On the other hand, for the Vegas draft, the existing 30 teams could protect only seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie, or only eight line players combined and one goalie. They didn’t have the competition of another league. For the Knights, they had the opportunity to pick some experienced skaters, as well as a top notch goalie for their new team.

World Events Behind the First Games

Although different eras, there were events occurring in each city that impacted the hockey community. It is more evidence that hockey really does have a healing element and a way to bring together diverse communities.

In 1974 the United States was not in the best place in history. Through the Vietnam War, America had lost 58,000 people and Washington DC had seen numerous protests in its streets. Additionally, the US capital had been through a lot with the Watergate scandal that culminated in President Richard Nixon’s resignation on August 9, exactly two months before the Capitals’ debut in NHL. These events had left the morale of the American people down, especially the large number of government workers in the DC area. The only relief for the Washingtonians in the 1970’s was the Washington Bullets  basketball team (now Wizards). It was the basketball team’s golden age, with six of their seven division titles (1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975 and 1979), four conference titles (1971, 1975, 1978 and 1979), and their first and only NBA championship until then (1978).  DC needed a hockey team to unite behind.

dscn0432Las Vegas had no idea that they would face tragedy before their debut as a team in 2017. The was a mass shooting in the heart of Vegas, just a few blocks from the T-Mobile Arena, which left 58 dead and an additional 851 injured.  The event had a negative impact not just in Vegas but for all Americans. The attack, just days before the team’s debut in the regular season of 2017-18 also left the hockey community devastated. The Knights rose to the occasion during their home opening night on October 10 to begin the healing process for Vegas and has done so each and every game as they remain “Vegas Strong.”

Conclusion

We should also keep in mind that the current hockey game is more dynamic. The NHL has players of diverse nationalities, and is filled with many more skilled  players, unlike the teams of the 1970’s. The structure is also better and provides for more competition, with the possibility of the franchises drawing from affiliated teams in order to develop players and to plan for their gradual transition to the NHL. In short, when Vegas came as an expansion team it was in a better construct, compared to the previous ones, and surely the Capitals in the 1970’s.

In both cases, hockey broke into a new community. There is great merit in the success of the Golden Knights to have taken a team that never played together and accomplish what they did in their first season. This alone proves to be unfair to say that Vegas “benefited” in their expansion draft. In fact, many thought the team wouldn’t be able to do much in their first season in the desert — especially not make it to the playoffs.

Stanley Cup Game 3393So congratulations to the Vegas Golden Knights for a tremendous first season. And congratulations to the Washington Capitals for finally taking home the Stanley Cup. Will we see these two in the finals again next season?? Let’s hope so!

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