The 10 Worst Teams in NHL History
For every NHL team like the 1984-85 Edmonton Oilers, 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens and 1991-92 Pittsburgh Penguins that made a compelling case for all-time greatness, a few others suffered through seasons that were downright atrocious.
There are three points of criteria to note in this ranking of the NHL's worst single seasons:
- The first three seasons of each franchise's history were not eligible for the list. It's only fair to give new teams a chance to get their affairs in order before we rake them over the coals. This saved the 1972-73 New York Islanders, 1992-93 Ottawa Senators, 1992-93 San Jose Sharks and especially the 1974-75 Washington Capitals from our wrath. Those teams were awful, but they get a pass for being new franchises.
- Both current and defunct franchises were eligible, provided they existed for more than three years.
- A franchise can only be represented once in the top 10.
While points percentage was the primary factor in choosing the proper candidates, these 10 worst teams of all time were ranked in order of perceived awfulness in the context of their respective seasons. In other words, it's possible for a team that got 26 percent of the points available to be regarded as worse than one that got 23 percent.
In most of these cases, it was a segment of a multiseason stretch of terrible play. Those situations will be addressed within. But for ranking purposes, we tried to focus solely on the season in question.
"Honorable" Mentions: 1982-83 Hartford Whalers, 1981-82 New Jersey Devils, 1984-85 Toronto Maple Leafs, 1977-78 Minnesota North Stars.
10. 1983-84 Pittsburgh Penguins
The Record: 16-58-6 (23.8 points percentage)
They got their man. The Penguins were clearly tanking—trading away team captain Randy Carlyle and demoting goalie Roberto Romano to the AHL following a few strong performances late in the season—in order to get Mario Lemieux with the No. 1 pick. And it worked. He finished his career (and still resides) in eighth place on the NHL's career points leaderboard, and he got all of them with the Penguins.
Pittsburgh went 3-17-1 in its final 21 games while trying to finish "ahead" of the New Jersey Devils for the worst record in the league, and there were quite a few goals allowed along the way. Opponents scored at least six goals against the Penguins in 14 of their final 26 games, including a 13-4 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers immediately after mistakenly winning two games in a row.
Though the team got Lemieux, it took a few years for Pittsburgh to recover. It didn't make the playoffs until his fifth season, and it didn't become a threat to win the Stanley Cup until it drafted Jaromir Jagr in 1990. Fans are hopeful that tanking for a year or two will expedite the rebuilding process, but it took more than half a decade to reap the rewards from this mess.
9. 1961-62 Boston Bruins
The Record: 15-47-8 (27.1 points percentage)
Right before things took a turn for the worse in late January, Boston won seven games in the span of 15. More than a month of near-.500 hockey is rather impressive on this list of dumpster fires.
And at least the Bruins were at their worst when the Boston Celtics were at their best and the Boston Patriots were still a relatively new expansion team. I'm not sure how much overlap there is between the three fan bases, but the consensus morale of Boston sports fans was a lot better than it would have been if the Bruins were the only game in town.
Boston gave up 87 more goals than the next-closest team this season. That inability to defend the net was particularly bad during the 20-game winless streak from Jan. 28 through March 11. The Bruins were outscored 98-32 and allowed at least five goals in 14 of those contests.
Boston consistently brought up the rear in the final years of the Original Six, which lasted from 1942-67. This was the second of seven consecutive (70-game) seasons in which the Bruins finished with 48 points or fewer. In the 18 years the NHL operated on a 70-game schedule, there were 13 instances of a team ending up with 48 points or fewer. Boston "accomplished" more than half of those seasons in succession.
8. 1939-40 Montreal Canadiens
The Record: 10-33-5 (26.0 points percentage)
The Canadiens got out to a great start, winning their season opener by a score of 8-2. They were 4-0-2 after six games and were sitting at 7-4-2 more than a quarter of the way through their schedule. Of course, that means they went 3-29-3 the rest of the way, but at least they weren't a doormat for the entire season. Most of the teams on this list can't make that claim. Also, Montreal has 11 more Stanley Cups than the closest runner-up, so this season is of no concern in its illustrious history.
Montreal's goaltending was atrocious. The Canadiens allowed 167 goals, which was the second-most of any team in the 1930s. No. 1 on that list were the 1930-31 Philadelphia Quakers, which was a relocated version of the No. 1 team in these rankings. Allowing 3.5 goals per game isn't that bad in today's NHL, but it was pathetic at the time.
After averaging 2.9 goals per game in its first 13 contests, Montreal plummeted to 1.5 the rest of the way. There was a nine-game losing streak followed by two separate 10-game winless streaks, all in the span of 31 games. Though that's probably to be expected when you can't score worth a darn.
7. 1997-98 Tampa Bay Lightning
The Record: 17-55-10 (26.8 points percentage)
The only good thing about this season is what happened after it: Tampa Bay drafted Vincent Lecavalier with the first overall pick in the 1998 draft. Over the next 14 seasons, he scored 383 goals for the Lightning, including an NHL-best 52 during the 2006-07 campaign. It would be a few more years before he had enough of a supporting cast to actually achieve anything, but Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup in 2004.
Tampa Bay averaged a pathetic 1.8 goals per game. Its leading scorers (Mikael Renberg and Alex Selivanov) only managed 16 goals apiece. No one on the team had more than 40 points. After 20 games, the Lightning were 2-16-2 with a 16-game winless streak. And they had another 16-game winless streak from Jan. 2 through Feb. 5.
Excluding the 1992-93 Ottawa Senators (first season), the 1992-93 San Jose Sharks (second season) and the 1999-2000 Atlanta Thrashers (first season), this was the worst team of the past three decades. That means for an entire generation of NHL fans, this is as bad as it gets, aside from what they have read or heard about from before their time.
6. 1953-54 Chicago Black Hawks
The Record: 12-51-7 (22.1 points percentage)
Chicago's goalie, Al Rollins, won the 1953-54 Hart Trophy—the NHL's MVP—despite losing 47 games and allowing 3.21 goals per game. It was probably partially a lifetime achievement award and partially pity for a guy who was more than competent while getting bombarded with shots on a nightly basis. Regardless, it made for a nice silver lining on an otherwise disastrous season in this franchise's history.
This was one of the most anemic offenses ever, averaging a meager 1.9 goals per game. No individual Black Hawk scored so much as 20 goals, while multiple players from each of the other five teams reached that plateau. Chicago was shut out 14 times in a 70-game season, meaning there was a one-in-five chance it wouldn't score on any given night. Four of those shutouts came in the span of six games near the end of the season.
This was the lowest point, but Chicago was dreadful for more than a decade. From 1946-47 through 1956-57, the Black Hawks finished dead last nine times and only made the playoffs once—at a time when four out of six teams advanced to the postseason. After the drought ended, though, they went to the playoffs 38 times in the span of 39 years.
5. 1985-86 Detroit Red Wings
The Record: 17-57-6 (25.0 points percentage)
The Red Wings weren't down for long. They made the playoffs both the year before and the year after this debacle. In fact, they were in the postseason in 28 of the subsequent 29 seasons. Similar to the NFL's New England Patriots bottoming out for one year (2000) before becoming an unstoppable freight train for two decades, this was merely the most forgettable season for an otherwise excellent franchise.
There were 21 teams in the NHL at this point, and Detroit ranked 21st in both goals scored and goals allowed. The Red Wings had some young talent, most notably 20-year-old Steve Yzerman and 23-year-old rookie Adam Oates, but veteran leadership was severely lacking. Ivan Boldirev, Brad Park and Darryl Sittler all retired after serving as the "old guard" in 1984-85, and the younger roster was unable to string together anything resembling prolonged success.
Nine games into the season, the Red Wings were 0-8-1 and had been outscored 58-22. That's a margin of minus-4.0 goals per game. Not only was this team bad, but it took less than three weeks to confirm it was going nowhere fast. It was the first of three winless skids that each lasted at least nine games.
4. 1973-74 California Golden Seals
The Record: 13-55-10 (23.1 points percentage)
Goals came sparingly for the Golden Seals, who averaged 2.5 per game. But at the midpoint of the regular season, they had a brief surge. Reggie Leach had a hat trick against the Chicago Black Hawks on Jan. 6, and in the next game, Ivan Boldirev scored four goals in an 8-6 victory over the St. Louis Blues. It was the second (and final) time they scored at least seven goals in a game that year.
Not that they had anything left to play for toward the end of the season, but the Golden Seals went 0-11-1 in their final 12 games with a goal differential of minus-36. They allowed more goals than any other team that season, and only the New York Islanders—a franchise in just its second season of existence at the time—scored fewer goals.
Not only were the Golden Seals bad at hockey, but they also played in quite possibly the most hideous uniforms in NHL history. Green and gold worked for the Oakland A's, but it didn't work on ice. Nor did the infamous white skates. This was also the second of six consecutive seasons finishing in last place in their division. The franchise folded in 1978.
3. 1943-44 New York Rangers
The Record: 6-39-5 (17.0 points percentage)
Future Hall of Famer Bryan Hextall had a respectable season, scoring 21 goals and tallying 33 assists. It was his sixth consecutive year with at least 20 goals and his third straight with more than 50 points. And though the team's point percentage was deplorable, the Rangers get somewhat of a pass because NHL rosters were ravaged by players serving in the military during World War II. The league almost shut down entirely because of it.
Ken McAuley was like a block of Swiss cheese trying to stop pucks from going into the net. He played almost every minute of that 50-game season for the Rangers even though he was arguably the worst goalie of all time. His goals against average was 6.24, which makes him the only goalie in NHL history to play in at least 25 games while allowing 5.5 or more goals per game.
Because McAuley couldn't save anything, these Rangers had the second-worst per-game goal differential in NHL history with a mark of minus-2.96. The 1974-75 expansion year Washington Capitals were worse (minus-3.31), but those were the only two instances of minus-2.5 or worse. The Rangers also went 0-14-1 in their first 15 games and 0-17-4 in their last 21.
2. 1989-90 Quebec Nordiques
The Record: 12-61-7 (19.4 points percentage)
In just the second of his 20 seasons with the Nordiques/Avalanche, a 20-year-old Joe Sakic racked up 102 points, which put him in a tie for 10th-best in the league that year. However, he had 15 more goals and 25 more assists than his next-closest teammate, so he was something of a one-man army.
The Nordiques tried seven different goalies, but 18-year-old John Tanner, who made one start in the next-to-last game of the season, was the only one with a save percentage of 87.0 or better and the only one with a goals against average below 4.0. They allowed 5.1 goals per game and gave up 48 more than the next-worst team. They also ranked dead last in goals scored, though at least they were only five shy of the Vancouver Canucks in that department. The goaltending was the bigger tragedy.
The 1989-90 season was the lowest point, but this was a half-decade-long embarrassment for the franchise. There were 21 teams at this point, 16 of which went to the playoffs. That's 76.2 percent. But the Nordiques missed the cut five straight years, finishing dead last in their division from 1987-88 through 1991-92. We're not talking photo finishes, either. On average, they finished 26.0 points behind fourth place in a five-team division.
1. 1929-30 Pittsburgh Pirates
The Record: 5-36-3 (14.8 points percentage)
This short-lived franchise (five seasons) has been credited with the innovation of line changes (h/t SB Nation's Adam Gretz). The Pirates introduced that wrinkle to the NHL four years prior to this particular season, though. It wasn't even the same head coach. Odie Cleghorn did the line changes. Frank Fredrickson was the player-coach who led this mess of a team. But that's about as good as it gets here.
There have been a few instances of franchises having a worse points percentage in their first (or only) season, but this was the only team in NHL history to have a percentage below 17.0 after Year 1 of existence. The Pirates weren't historically dreadful during the first 40 percent of the season, but they went 1-24-2 over their final 27 games.
This young franchise was already struggling with finances, but then came the stock market crash of 1929. Unable to make ends meet, the team relocated to Philadelphia for the 1930-31 season...and got even worse. In that lone season as the Quakers, the former Pirates went 4-36-4 and closed up shop for good after that disaster.