Tuesday, October 21, 2014

How history's worst teams can offer up some hope for Oiler fans

So stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the Edmonton Oilers seem like they might be terrible this year.

Last night’s win over the Lightning moved them to 1-4-1 and one point clear of dead last place in the league. They’ve been a mess defensively, the goaltending has been shaky, and the young forwards have often looked overwhelmed. While it’s still reasonably early, so far the Oilers are on track to miss the playoffs, and probably by a lot.

You should have stopped me by now because of course you have heard this one before. You’ve heard it for most of the past eight seasons, ever since the Oilers fell one game short of a shocking Stanley Cup upset back in 2006. At the time, it seemed like Edmonton was on the verge of something special. Ever since, they’ve become a punch line.1

If it’s any comfort to Oilers fans, they’re not the first team to endure this much misery. While the modern NHL draft system is meant to encourage quick turnarounds for the league’s worst teams, it doesn’t always work out that way, and Edmonton isn’t the first team to go through an extended stretch of bottom-feeding. So rather than pile on the Oilers today, I figured it would be nice to remind them that they’re not alone. If misery loves company, then Oilers fans should feel right at home as we look back at some other teams from the post-expansion era that suffered through at least five years of utter failure.

Washington Capitals, 1974-82

How bad were they? Worse than any team has ever been.

That’s not an exaggeration – the 1974-75 Caps were the worst team in NHL history, going 8-67-5 for 21 points and surrendering a record 446 goals. Only one player on the team managed more than 35 points, and their season included an NHL record 17-game losing streak.2 Their goal differential that year was an almost unfathomable minus-265, meaning that on an average they were outscored by more than three goals in each and every game.

They weren’t that much better the next year, putting up just 32 points, and they didn’t top 70 points over the franchise’s first eight seasons.

How they got so bad: They were an expansion team with bad timing. By adding the Capitals and the Kansas City Scouts, the NHL went from eight teams to 10. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but remember that the World Hockey Association was icing 14 teams of its own at the time. That added up to 24 professional teams in North America, at a time when Canada was supplying virtually all the talent. There just weren’t enough good players to go around, and anyone whom Washington or Kansas City could have targeted in the expansion draft or free agency likely just went to the WHA instead. (The Scouts were almost as bad, putting up seasons of 41 and 36 points before moving to Denver and later New Jersey.)

Rock bottom: They lost their first 37 road games. When they finally won one, they celebrated by skating a garbage can around the ice like it was the Stanley Cup.

Turning point: The Capitals were terrible for the rest of the ’70s and beyond. They finally turned things around in 1982-83, in Bryan Murray’s first full season behind the bench. They’d built up some decent youth, including Bobby Carpenter and future Hall of Famer Mike Gartner up front, and the blue line included a newly drafted teenager named Scott Stevens. They managed 94 points, the first time in nine seasons that they’d surpassed even 70, and made the playoffs for the first time in history.

Hope for Oilers fans: Even the worst team in the history of the NHL was bad for only eight straight seasons, which by my calculations means Edmonton has to be good this year. It’s science!

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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