While the Washington Capitals seek to win their first Stanley Cup, on the other bench will be the Vegas Golden Knights, the most successful expansion franchise in modern American sports.
After an expansion draft last year got them Marc-Andre Fleury but no star forwards, the Golden Knights shocked many by going 51-24-7 and winning the Pacific Division, then cruising through the Western Conference in the playoffs with a 12-3 playoff record through three series.
While the Elvis impersonators and blackjack dealers that inhabit that city are getting spoiled, they might not realize that most cities’ teams have to suffer for a year or 40 before enjoying some success. Look back at how these Washington-based major league teams fared when they were the new teams on the block. With one major exception, they went poorly.
1974 Capitals: 8-67-5
The Capitals themselves had a downright awful debut season, regarded by many as the worst NHL team of all time. Their .131 winning percentage, 446 goals allowed and one — count it, one — road win are just some of the NHL record lows the expansion Capitals posted. Terrible defense aside, center Tommy Williams, one of only two Americans on the roster, led the team with 22 goals and 36 assists. Of course, the Capitals didn’t benefit from the same expansion draft rules the Golden Knights had.
1996 D.C. United: 16-16, MLS Cup, U.S. Open Cup
Let’s cleanse the palate from those memories by discussing the most successful debut of a Washington team next. D.C. United won the “double” of MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup in the inaugural year of Major League Soccer. Now, should the Black and Red be considered an “expansion” team if it was part of the league from the very start? Don’t worry about technicalities like that. These were the glory days of Jaime Moreno, Eddie Pope and Raul Diaz Arce.
1932 Boston Braves: 4-4-2
Before they came to be known as the Redskins, the football team was the Boston Braves. They finished a ho-hum .500 in their first season and finished in fourth place. Some of the Braves’ competition in that eight-team NFL included the long-defunct Portsmouth Spartans and Staten Island Stapletons.
However, in the team’s first year in Washington, 1937, they won the NFL Championship 28-21 over the Bears. It is not the same thing as their expansion season, but maybe coming to the District for the first time gave them some sort of lucky boost.
1961-62 Chicago Packers: 18-62
If we didn’t say which Washington team the Packers turned out to be, would you know it? Before becoming the Baltimore Bullets and eventually the Washington Wizards, the franchise debuted with one season as the Chicago Packers and one as the Chicago Zephyrs. The Packers were the worst team in the NBA in 1962, despite having Olympic gold medalist and future NBA All-Star Walt Bellamy win Rookie of the Year.
Upon moving from Baltimore to the Washington area, the team spent the 1973-74 season as the Capital Bullets before adding Washington onto their name. The Capital Bullets won the Central Division but lost in the first round of the playoffs. They were only four years off from winning their first and only NBA Championship.
1969 Montreal Expos: 52-110
Neither the Expos nor the Washington Nationals would ever finish with a worse winning percentage than the .321 the team posted in its expansion season in Montreal. They finished 48 games out of first place in their division, won by the New York Mets, the eventual World Series champion that year.
Moving to the District didn’t fix everything on the field for the franchise. The Nationals went 81-81 in 2005 and were still years away from the era of Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg.
1998 Washington Mystics: 3-27
Ending on a sour note, the Mystics joined the WNBA in the league’s second season, so unlike D.C. United, “expansion team” fits the bill. It was too bad they were the worst team by a long shot, but this did set the Mystics up to draft Chamique Holdsclaw first overall in the 1999 draft.
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