Fast-forward 17 years and there’s Schmidt’s name being announced by the Vegas Golden Knights as their expansion draft selection from the Washington Capitals. The 26-year-old defenseman started his NHL career with a team that won the most regular-season games over the past three years, so Schmidt tempered his expectations for the Golden Knights’ inaugural season. But 20 games in, Vegas has won 13 of them, good for first place in the Pacific Division.
So, about those expectations?
“I don’t really know how to put it any other way, but not the way we started,” Schmidt said.
Perhaps it hit home for Schmidt when, less than a month into the season, the Golden Knights already had eight wins, matching the Capitals’ miserable 1974-75 debut campaign. Washington went 8-67-5 that year, still the worst season ever. With more than 40 years separating the two teams, their different trajectories underscore how the expansion draft has changed — and how impressive the Golden Knights’ start has been.
Just three teams who were in a playoff position on Thanksgiving last season fell out by the end of the season, holding true to a trend: Since the league expanded to 30 clubs in 2000, roughly 80 percent of playoff teams on Turkey Day ultimately make the postseason. That means the Golden Knights are on track to make the playoffs and become the first first-year club to win more than 33 games. They’ve lost just once at home — maybe the Las Vegas attractions have something to do with that — and Schmidt recently quipped to reporters that, “The house always wins.”
“I didn’t really know what to expect,” Schmidt said in a phone interview. “I had hoped that for me personally, that this would be a time where I would have some room to grow into a new role. And I just had hoped that there were other guys on our team that were looking to make that step as well. . . . We all could grow in a way together with our roles increasing.”
Members of the 1974-75 Capitals team have followed the Golden Knights with pride and a little envy. The late Abe Pollin’s entry fee into the league was $6 million, chump change compared to Vegas owner Bill Foley’s $500 million. It also bought Foley quite a bit more. Teams had the option of two player protection formats for the expansion draft — either seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender, or any eight skaters and one goaltender. In 2000, when Minnesota and the Columbus Blue Jackets entered the league, established teams were permitted to protect nine forwards, five defensemen and a goaltender (or seven forwards, three defensemen and two goalies).
Golden Knights General Manager George McPhee made some side deals, picking up picks and prospects in exchange for avoiding certain players in the draft. The team amassed assets for its future, but it also was able to snatch a bona fide first-line winger in James Neal, who scored 23 goals last season with Nashville, and a No. 1 goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury, a three-time Stanley Cup champion with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Proven veterans such as forwards Cody Eakin and David Perron were available. Then there were a collection of players who seemed to have upside, but perhaps they’d been squeezed out of top spots with their respective clubs because of good depth. Count Schmidt in that last category.
“Effort and work ethic and being able to go out and play a hard, physical game and managing the puck well, those are things that these guys had to do on their former teams, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to play very much,” Schmidt said. “That’s something I had to do. Now that you give these guys an opportunity to play a little bit more and they have that background and now that you’re adding some offense, it gives a chance to win a lot of games. . . . That’s the beauty of it.”
When Washington and Kansas City had their expansion drafts in 1974, teams were permitted to protect 15 skaters and two goalies, which left a sorry talent pool for the draft. The fledgling teams combined for 23 wins that season, but the Capitals were clearly the lesser of the two. No other team in the league’s 100-year history has played at least 70 games while posting fewer points (21) or wins (eight). The Capitals won one road game that year — 5-3 over the California Golden Seals — and players famously celebrated by passing a garbage pail around the locker room as if it were the Stanley Cup.
“The protected list was a joke,” said Jack Lynch, a defenseman on that first Capitals team. “If you look back at the players who were exposed for the expansion draft back then, you were getting basically access to the 17th, 18th and 19th player on the existing NHL teams’ rosters.”
Indeed, of the more than 50 players at Washington’s inaugural training camp, none had scored more than 10 goals in the NHL the year before. Defenseman Bill Mikkelson finished with a minus-82 rating that season, still an NHL record, and that was in part because teams would often run up the score on the Capitals because players saw an opportunity to pad their stats.
During his time in Washington, Schmidt heard stories about the original team and how much losing occurred that season. When Vegas matched the eight-win total within three weeks, that’s when Schmidt realized just how good these Golden Knights might have it.
“I can’t imagine how hard it would’ve been on those guys to have to go through that,” Schmidt said.
“My golf buddies and that are all saying the same thing, like, ‘Gosh, the amazing start that they’ve had, how does that compare to you guys?’ ” Lynch said. “Well, it doesn’t. There’s just no way.”