Building The Washington Capitals: A Look At The Expansion Draft Of 1974

Photo: NHL.com

NHL expansion drafts typically involve the existing NHL teams losing players to create the league’s newest team. The upcoming expansion draft to populate the newly-minted Seattle Kraken is no exception. In this piece, NoVa Caps looks back at the most important expansion draft in the history of the Washington Capitals, the one that populated the first-ever Washington Capitals team.

Back on June 8, 1972, the National Hockey League awarded expansion franchises to the cities of Kansas City, Missouri and Washington, DC. One of the reasons those two particular cities were awarded franchises was to keep the World Hockey Association (WHA) from expanding there, as there were plans to build new arenas in those locations.

At the time, Missouri was building a new arena to house the Kansas City Kings basketball team, while Washington was planning to build a downtown stadium which was to be called the Eisenhower Memorial Center. As a result, the NHL awarded the Washington D.C. franchise to Abe Pollin, the owner of the Baltimore Bullets basketball team, and the Kansas City franchise was awarded to an enormous ownership group there. [As it turned out, the Eisenhower Memorial Center was never built and Abe Pollin himself financed the building of a stadium in Landover, Maryland.]

General Manager and Head Coach Hires

Pollin hired Milt Schmidt as General Manager who had been recommended to him by Red Auerbach, the owner of the Boston Bruins. Pollin and Auerbach were good friends. Schmidt held the General Manager position with the Bruins for the previous six seasons and before that served as their Head Coach for eleven years. He also was a star player for the Bruins and is a member of their Hall of Fame. Schmidt’s name was on the Stanley Cup four times, twice as a player (1939, 1941) and twice as a General Manager(1970, 1972). As a Head Coach, his team reached the Stanley Cup Final (1957, 1958) and lost both times.

Schmidt appointed Edgar B. “Lefty” McFadden as Assistant General Manager. Prior to joining the Caps, McFadden had been former Vice President and General Manager of the Dayton Gems of the International Hockey League (IHL); he organized the team in 1964 and they went on to six championships.

Schmidt brought over his Chief Scout from the Bruins from 1970-72, George “Red” Sullivan, and gave him the same job in Washington. Prior to becoming a scout, Sullivan played eight seasons in the NHL and also was Head Coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Schmidt also hired Jim Anderson, previously Head Coach of the Springfield Indians in the AHL, as the first Head Coach for the Capitals.

Photo: B.Bennett/Getty Images

Initial Player Population Via NHL Entry Draft

The Capitals and the Kansas City Scouts would get the first two picks in the 1974 NHL Entry Draft. By virtue of a coin flip, the Capitals would choose first in the draft and the Scouts would pick second. Since the Caps would choose first, the Scouts would pick first in the Expansion Draft.

Because the WHA was in competition with the NHL for player talent and would draft players too young to be eligible for the NHL draft, the league changed the rules so that NHL teams could draft one 18-year old in each of the first two rounds. The minimum age prior to that was 20 for the NHL, but the WHA limit was 18.

The draft was held from May 28-30, via conference call to prevent the WHA teams from immediately knowing who the NHL drafted. It was also held earlier than normal so that the NHL teams could have a head start in negotiating contracts with selected prospects. In the draft, the Caps selected defenseman Greg Joly with the first overall pick and drafted winger Mike Marson with their second-round pick; both were 18-years old.

Photo: NHL.com

Marson confirmed the fact that a WHA team had contacted him, “At the time, the people who were representing me were talking to [the] Vancouver [Blazers]. There were a lot of guys who were—I’m sure—considering offers to play in the WHA at that time.”

Expansion Draft Rules

The expansion draft was held in the Grand Salon of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, Quebec, on June 12, 1974. The rules would be the same as for the expansion draft in 1972 that built the New York Islanders and the Atlanta Flames. There was one difference: teams who had lost a goaltender in the 1972 Expansion Draft could exempt themselves from losing one in this draft.

Unlike the more recent expansion drafts (the one that constructed the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017 and the one that will see the Seattle Kraken with their first roster) in which each team could protect either seven forwards, three defenders, and a goalie or protect four forwards, four defensemen, and a goalie, the expansion draft of 1974 allowed teams to protect 15 skaters and two goaltenders.

First year pros (those who had started their careers during the 1973-74 season) were exempt from selection. When a player was selected from a team, the team could protect one additional player. Ultimately, each team would lose three players in expansion. Prior to the expansion draft of 1974, there were sixteen teams in the league.

The Capitals’ General Manager Milt Schmidt remarked about the paucity of available talent to the New York Times on June 11, 1974, “It’s not fair.  We paid $6 million dollars to join the league and look how little the other teams have left for us.”

Jim McKay, a columnist from the Windsor Star, described the players available for that expansion draft as “little more than a bag of bones” and envisioned: “Washington and Kansas City met last night in hockey for the first time. Hockey lost.” That quote was found in the book, The Legends of Landover, written by Glenn Dreyfuss.

With the player protection rules in place, the Capitals and the Scouts were basically drafting the 16th, 18th, and 20th-best players from each of the other existing clubs. Most of these teams were facing their third expansion draft in five years, which had definitely thinned out their talent depth.

There was an expansion draft in 1970 to build the Buffalo Sabres and the Vancouver Canucks, followed by the expansion draft in 1972 to construct the New York Islanders and Atlanta Flames. These drafts were on top of the initial expansion in 1967 that created six new teams.

The expansion draft to build the Capitals and the Scouts was the fourth expansion draft in just seven years. In addition, the NHL teams were competing for talent with the WHA, which had begun operation in 1972. Thus, each team had an even thinner talent pool left for drafting than the Sabres, Canucks, Islanders, and Flames did at the time of their expansion.

The talent pool was not as widespread in those days, as the vast majority of NHL players were Canadian. Of the 450 players who played in the NHL in 1974-75, just over 400 of them were Canadian and about 30 were from the United States. It was very rare for Europeans to play in the NHL at that time, since Europeans were not considered “tough enough”, as it was an era in which teams like the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers would win through intimidation.

Players from behind the Iron Curtain, such as Russia, were not even considered. At the same time that the Capitals and Scouts came into existence, the WHA started recruiting Europeans, including players from Sweden and Czechoslovakia. The first player from Czechoslovakia, Václav Nedomanský, defected from his native country for the 1974-75 season to play for the Toronto Toros.

When the draft took place, both teams took goalies in the first two rounds, with the Capitals first choosing Ron Low and then choosing Michel Belhumeur. After that, the Caps selected a total of six defensemen and 16 forwards. Three of the players selected in the draft were from the Boston Bruins’ organization, as Schmidt was familiar with what they could do. These included forward Bob Gryp, left wing Mike Bloom, and right winger Ron Anderson.

The complete list of Capitals’ draftees can be found below. (List obtained from Hockey DB.)

Num. Drafted By Player Pos Drafted From
2 Washington Ron Low G Toronto Maple Leafs [NHL]
4 Washington Michel Belhumeur G Philadelphia Flyers [NHL]
6 Washington Dave Kryskow F Chicago Blackhawks [NHL]
8 Washington Yvon Labre D Pittsburgh Penguins [NHL]
10 Washington Pete Laframboise L California Golden Seals [NHL]
12 Washington Bob Gryp F Boston Bruins [NHL]
14 Washington Gord Smith D Los Angeles Kings [NHL]
16 Washington Steve Atkinson R Buffalo Sabres [NHL]
18 Washington Bruce Cowick F Philadelphia Flyers [NHL]
20 Washington Denis Dupere L Toronto Maple Leafs [NHL]
22 Washington Joe Lundrigan D Toronto Maple Leafs [NHL]
24 Washington Randy Wyrozub C Buffalo Sabres [NHL]
26 Washington Mike Bloom L Boston Bruins [NHL]
28 Washington Gord Brooks R St. Louis Blues [NHL]
30 Washington Bob Collyard C St. Louis Blues [NHL]
32 Washington Bill Mikkelson D New York Islanders [NHL]
34 Washington Ron Anderson R Boston Bruins [NHL]
36 Washington Mike Lampman L Vancouver Canucks [NHL]
38 Washington Lew Morrison R Atlanta Flames [NHL]
40 Washington Steve West C Minnesota North Stars [NHL]
42 Washington Larry Bolonchuk D Vancouver Canucks [NHL]
44 Washington Murray Anderson D Minnesota North Stars [NHL]
46 Washington Larry Fullan F Montreal Canadiens [NHL]
48 Washington Jack Egers R New York Rangers [NHL]

Post-Draft Acquisitions

After the draft, the Capitals gained three other former Bruins through cash transactions: Doug Mohns, Tommy Williams, and Bill Lesuk. One of these took place nearly a week later and was for Mohns, a 40-year old defenseman who was then with the Atlanta Flames, but who Schmidt knew from his days in Boston. Mohns started his NHL career in Boston during the 1953-54 season as Schmidt was winding down and ultimately played for Schmidt for the better part of a decade; Mohns would be the Capitals’ first captain.

Schmidt spoke about the acquisition of Mohns. “I knew that he was equally as good off the ice as he was on. We needed some leadership on that hockey club because we had a lot of kids that hadn’t played much in the National Hockey League. I just thought that by getting somebody like Doug, he would instill some of his thoughts and his way of thinking and that it would be a great asset to us. Plus it gave us some real good experience, which we needed badly.”

A month after acquiring Mohns, Schmidt acquired Williams. Williams had been a member of the US Olympic team in 1960 which won the Gold Medal and played for the Bruins for many years until jumping to the WHA in 1972-73. Schmidt acquired Williams’ rights from Boston and convinced him to leave his WHA team in favor of getting an important role with the newly-formed Caps.

Schmidt also obtained Lesuk from the Los Angeles Kings, a gritty, hard-working checking forward. Lesuk was developed in the Bruins’ system but had found his way to the NHL blocked there so he had gone to the Kings before joining the Capitals.

Other notable players who played for the 1974-75 Capitals were acquired in trades. This included left wingers Ace Bailey and Stan Gilbertson, who were both acquired from the St. Louis Blues in exchange for Denis Dupere. Bailey eventually became a coach in the Los Angeles Kings organization and perished in one of the hijacked planes in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. There was also Ron Lalonde, a center, acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Results

With the thin roster, the Capitals ended up with a record of 8-67-5 for just 21 points, breaking the record for futility set by the New York Islanders in 1972-73 (who had compiled a record of 12–60–6). The Caps’ record still stands after nearly 50 years.

Of the 24 players whom the Caps drafted in the expansion draft, 18 played for the team during the 1974-75 season. Two more did not play for the Capitals during 1974-75, but played for the team the following year.

Four of the players never played for the team, with one of those players, Steve West, never appearing in the NHL. The other three players played with other NHL teams in the past but after being selected for the expansion draft, never appeared in an NHL contest.

Only nine of the 24 selected players appeared for the Caps after the 1974-75 season and Only three of the selected players appeared in more than 75 games for the Caps: defensemen Yvon Labre and Gord Smith, and Goaltender Ron Low. Labre eventually became the Capitals’ team captain for the 1976-77 and 1977-78 seasons and eventually had his number retired by the team.

Photo: Bruce Bennet Studios/Getty Images

Head Coach Jim Anderson did not last the first season, and was replaced by Red Sullivan, who in turn, was eventually replaced by Schmidt himself. Schmidt was replaced as General Manager midway through the 1975-76 season by Max McNab.

The Caps’ offensive leader in Goals (22), Assists (36),  and overall Points (58) was Williams, one of the former Bruins acquired after the draft. The other leading scorers were Denis Dupere (20) and Mike Marson (16); the other assist leaders were Labre (23), Mohns (19), and Mike Bloom (19). Dupere was second in points with 35.

The Caps improved to 11-59-10 for 32 points overall in 1975-76. They remained a poor team until finally making the playoffs in the 1982-83 season. In their two prior seasons, they barely missed the playoffs.

The Kansas City Scouts also fared poorly in the standings. They were 15-54-11 for just 41 points in their inaugural season and followed that up in 1975-76 with a 12-15-12 record for 36 points.  After that, the Scouts moved to Colorado and were renamed the Rockies, remaining there until 1981-82, when they moved to New Jersey and became the Devils. The Devils did not make the playoffs until the 1987-88 season.

By Diane Doyle

Further Reading
Sports Illustrated: Washington Capitals Franchise Oral History Worst NHL Season
New York Times: NHL’s Worst Team Provides Capital Punishment For its Fans
NHL — Capitals Time Capsule 1974-1975 Season in Review
Historical Hockey Blogspot: 1974 NHL Expansion Draft
NHL: Capitals Expansion Time Again
NHL: Milt Schmidt Obituary
NHL: Capitals History Opening Night — October 9 1974
One and Done: Washington Capitals One-Hit Wonders: Forwards
George (Red) Sullivan, Capitals Second Head Coach, Passes Away
Retro Recap: The Japan Coca-Cola Bottlers Cup – Washington Capitals and Kansas City Scouts
Capitals Alumni Biographies Greg Joly
Capitals Alumni Profile: Mike Marson
Capitals Alumni Biography: Tommy Williams
Reviewing All Of The Washington Capitals First Round Draft Picks And How They Turned Out
NHL: The Capitals First Win

Statistics obtained from HockeyDB, Hockey Reference, and NHL.com

 

About Diane Doyle

Been a Caps fan since November 1975 when attending a game with my then boyfriend and now husband.
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