Where Do the Oilers Rank on the NHL Misery Index?
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 16 teams to 18. 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 32 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!
New Jersey Devils, 1982-87
How bad were they? So bad that we’re not going to count their Kansas City/Colorado ancestors, just to be nice. Besides, when it comes to being awful, the Devils do just fine on their own.
For their first five years in New Jersey, the team never managed more than 64 points, and they didn’t make the playoffs even though this was the 1980s and you could make the NHL playoffs just by showing up. Their worst season was 1984, when they had a pathetic 41 points. That actually should have been a good thing, because that was the year of the Mario Lemieux draft. But the Devils couldn’t even win at being terrible; the Penguins tanked their way to a 38-point season to “earn” the top choice. (The Devils settled for the second pick, and wound up with Kirk Muller instead.)
How they got so bad: The Scouts and Rockies were awful, so the New Jersey edition of the franchise didn’t start off with much to work with. The roster was usually a mix of young prospects and veteran castoffs from other teams. It’s no surprise that goaltender Glenn “Chico” Resch quickly became the team’s most popular player, since the puck was within a few feet of him for most of the game. And it certainly didn’t help matters that they played in the Patrick, a decent division that featured the Islanders dynasty and later some very strong teams in Philadelphia and Washington.
Rock bottom: After a 1983 game in which he had eight points in a 13-4 win, Wayne Gretzky famously called the Devils a “Mickey Mouse organization” and accused them of “ruining the whole league.”
Turning point: After five miserable years, team owner John McMullen hired a new team president out of the college hockey ranks and assigned him the task of finding a new general manager. Unable to settle on a candidate, the president just gave himself the job instead, even though he had absolutely no NHL experience. That president was, of course, Lou Lamoriello, who still holds the job to this day.
In Lamoriello’s first year, the Devils finally made the playoffs with an overtime win on the final day of the season, which was a legitimately awesome moment. They went on to make a run all the way to the conference finals (probably best remembered for the “Have another doughnut” incident) and eventually morphed into perpetual contenders who captured three Stanley Cups.
Hope for Oilers fans: Based on the Lamoriello story, all you need to do to turn things around is hire a permanently cranky curmudgeon with no NHL experience and you’ll be all set. Wait a second …
Ottawa Senators, 1993-98
How bad were they? OK, I’m cheating a little bit on our five-year rule here, because by 1998 the Senators weren’t awful. They certainly weren’t good, finishing under .500 and losing in the first round of the playoffs, but they weren’t awful.
But compared to the first four years of their existence, “not awful” was an almost inconceivable success in Ottawa, because for those four years the Senators were excruciatingly bad. Before their breakthrough in Year 5, they never managed more than 41 points in a season, finishing dead last in the league four straight times. In 1992-93 they broke the Capitals’ record by losing a stunning 38 straight road games. Two years later, they drafted Bryan Berard first overall, only to have him refuse to play for them.
By 1996, Sports Illustrated had declared them the worst expansion team in sports history. Not just in hockey — in the entire history of sports.
How they got so bad: They were another expansion team, so they started with two strikes against them. And if we’re going to continue with the baseball metaphor, they also forgot their glove and couldn’t figure out which end of the bat to hold. Early management was so incompetent that at the expansion draft, they kept screwing up and trying to pick ineligible players.
How bad was that initial Senators roster? In the team’s first year, a local newspaper decided it would make for a fun human interest story to send its circulation manager to attend training camp. He ended up leading the team in scoring.
Rock bottom: They were accused of tanking in order to secure the no. 1 pick in the 1993 draft, leading to the introduction of the league’s draft lottery. Then they used that pick on Alexandre Daigle instead of Chris Pronger. Even when they were losing on purpose, they found a way to screw it up.
Turning point: You’d have to go with the arrival of Daniel Alfredsson. Ironically, given how many high draft picks the team stockpiled by finishing last every year, he was taken with the 133rd pick in the 1994 draft. He arrived in 1995, winningRookie of the Year honors and then going on to play in Ottawa for 17 seasons. Along the way, he established every major franchise scoring record and became the most beloved athlete in the city’s history.3
Hope for Oilers fans: Luckily, the Oilers have had a couple of recent 133rd overall picks of their own. Come on down, uh … Philippe Cornet and Olivier Roy, you are the chosen ones! (Neither player is still with the organization.)
Quebec Nordiques, 1987-92
How bad were they? They failed to crack the 70-point mark for five straight seasons, and finished dead last in the league in 1989, 1990, and 1991. That made them the only team in North American sports history to pick first overall in a draft for three straight seasons, a distinction they held until the Oilers and Houston Astros recently tied them.4
The worst of those seasons came in 1989-90, when their 31 points was less than half of the league’s next worst team. They also gave up a jaw-dropping 407 goals that year.
How they got so bad: The Nordiques had been a decent team through much of the ’80s, making the playoffs in each of the decade’s first seven years and going as deep as the conference finals twice. Their rivalry with the Canadiens was legendary, and their roster featured All-Star players like Michel Goulet, Dale Hunter, and the Stastny brothers.
The downfall began with the departure of longtime coach Michel Bergeron, who was traded to the Rangers for a draft choice in 1987.5 They also dealt Hunter to the Capitals in a deal that landed them a first-round pick that they’d use to select Joe Sakic. That deal ended up being one of the best in league history — Sakic was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012 — but in the short term it weakened the team and signaled the start of a rebuild.
Rock bottom: As bad as the 1989-90 season was, the low point had to be the 1991 draft. The Nordiques used the first overall selection on can’t-miss franchise player Eric Lindros, only to have him refuse to play for them. After a yearlong battle of wills, the team eventually traded him to Philadelphia for a package that included Peter Forsberg.
Turning point: They used their other two first overall picks on a pair of very good players in Mats Sundin and Owen Nolan. Combined with a young Sakic and the eventual emergence of Forsberg, the Nords eventually became an offensive powerhouse and legitimate championship contender. It was too late for fans in Quebec, though — the team moved to Colorado in 1995 and won the Stanley Cup the next year.
Hope for Oilers fans: If you’re really lucky, the Oilers will follow in the Nordiques’ footsteps (in the sense that they’ll eventually move to another city and never bother you again).
Toronto Maple Leafs, 1981-89
How bad were they? Admit it, you were expecting to see the Leafs on this list, but you thought it was going to be the more recent team that missed the playoffs a franchise-record seven straight years from 2006 to 2013. But most of those teams weren’t truly terrible — a few had 90-plus points, and only one didn’t crack 80.
By comparison, the 1980s Maple Leafs were beyond awful. And when I say “1980s,” I mean it — they were terrible for basically the whole decade. Their best team from our eight-year sample was the 1986-87 squad, which had 70 points. I’ll repeat that: a team that managed three points more than last year’s Oilers was the best Leafs squad of almost an entire decade.
From 1981 to 1989, the Leafs averaged fewer than 60 points per season. They actually made the playoffs four times in that span, and even won a round in both 1986 and 1987, because this was the Norris Division and everyone else was terrible too. But they were a mess, going through coaches and GMs every few months and never offering up even the faintest hope that they could be good someday.
How they got so bad: Their owner was Harold Ballard. It was always worth a laugh in the mid-’80s when baseball fans would act like George Steinbrenner was the worst owner in sports. Yes, how awful it must have been for Yankees fans to have an owner who wanted to win and spent money trying to do it. Meanwhile, Ballard would fire you for refusing to walk his ugly dog.
Rock bottom: They put up a pathetic 48-point season in 1984-85, when they gave up 105 more goals than they scored and finished dead last overall.6
Turning point: Would it be crude to say it was when Ballard died? Because it was definitely when Ballard died. That happened in 1990, paving the way for the arrival of Cliff Fletcher in 1991, Pat Burns in 1992, the Doug Gilmour trade, and the team’s return to quasi-respectability.
Hope for Oilers fans: Sure, Maple Leafs fans went through a rough patch for a decade or so, but look at all the wonderful things that have happened to us in the years since! [Falls over sobbing.]