One for the Ages: Kent Nilsson’s 1980-81 NHL Season

In 2021-22, the Calgary Flames had their second-best season in franchise history. The team collected 50 wins and 111 points, coming in behind the 1988-89 team, which earned 54 wins and 117 points. Former All-Star Johnny Gaudreau was the spark plug for the offense, producing a career-best 115 points thanks to 40 goals and 75 points. Despite his best efforts, he came up short in his chase for the franchise points record (131) held by Swedish-born Kent Nilsson. During the Flames’ inaugural season in Calgary (1980-81), Nilsson pieced together the most remarkable season of anyone in franchise history.

Kent Nilsson Calgary Flames
Kent Nilsson, Calgary Flames, Nov. 1983 (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)

Born in Nynäshamn, Sweden, on Aug. 31, 1956, Nilsson played for Djurgårdens IF in the Swedish Elite League as a 17-year-old. After tearing it up in his native country, the Winnipeg Jets, while members of the World Hockey Association, brought the talented kid to North America in 1977. He won two Avco Cups with the Jets before the Atlanta Flames claimed him in the WHA/NHL merger draft of 1979. It was a second chance for the Flames, who initially selected him in the fourth round of the 1974 Amateur Draft. Nilsson fit right in with the offensive game plan in Atlanta, scoring 93 points in his first season. The following season, the Flames were sold and relocated to Calgary, where he took his game to the next level.

Nilsson Sets Flames Scoring Record

Wayne Gretzky was the most offensively-gifted hockey player in the 1980s. He made his NHL debut in 1979 and scored 137 points, losing the Art Ross Trophy to Marcel Dionne. Nevertheless, he used that as motivation to dominate the scoring race for the next seven seasons. He upped his previous numbers yearly, scoring 164 points in 1980-81, and Dionne, the previous year’s leading scorer, collected 135 points to finish in second place, leaving the third spot open for Nilsson.

Related: Flames With 100-Point Seasons

Nilsson opened the season with four points against the Quebec Nordiques, collecting two goals and two assists in a 5-5 tie. Then in October (11 games), he scored 15 points with six goals and nine assists. When the calendar flipped to November, he picked up his pace with a few extra points, collecting 18 points in 13 games. Before New Year’s break, he used the final 12 games of 1980 to collect another 12 points, bringing his total to 45 points after 36 games.

Nilsson seemed only to be tuning up the band for the season’s first three months. In 16 games in January, he doubled up his points, tallying 31 thanks to 10 goals and 21 assists. His impressive streak continued into February, where he collected 25 points with ten goals and 15 assists in 12 games. Nilsson became the first player in club history to surpass the century mark, earning his 101st point in his 64th game. In the final 17 games of the season, he scored 30 points, finishing his record-breaking campaign with 49 goals, 82 assists, and 131 points, a Flames record that still stands today.

Inside the Numbers of Nilsson’s Record Season

During his historical season, Nilsson scored three hat tricks, one against the Detroit Red Wings, New York Islanders, and Hartford Whalers. He finished the season with 49 goals, which was good for ninth in the NHL since Mike Bossy led the way with 68. What was impressive about his final goal total was that Nilsson only scored in 36 games, meaning he reached his total by scoring in just 45 percent of the games he played. His best games for assists came against the Colorado Rockies and Los Angeles Kings, where he set up four goals in each contest. He earned an assist in 51 games, which meant he earned a helper in 63% of his games.

Nilsson’s best game came on Jan. 15, 1981, against the Red Wings, when he scored six points on three goals and three assists. He had two five-point, eight four-point, and ten three-point games. He registered a point in 62 games in his 80 (77%).

Nilsson’s Place in the Record Book

Nilsson has held the Flames’ scoring record for 42 seasons and counting. During the high-scoring days of the late 1980s and early 1990s, several players like Joe Mullen and Theo Fleury attempted to chase down his numbers, but ultimately no one came within 20 points. It wasn’t until 2021-22 when Gaudreau got relatively close, finishing the season with 115 points, the second-best total in club history, but even his heroic efforts landed 16 points short.

Scoring 100 points in a season is not as common as it used to be. Players like Connor McDavid (Edmonton Oilers), Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins), and Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay Lightning) have to work night in and night out to reach triple digits in a league where scoring 82 points (a point per game) is considered a successful season. The last player to score more than 130 points in a season occurred in 1995-96 when Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux scored 161 points in just 69 games. Based on the pace of play in today’s NHL, Nilsson’s record is safe for the foreseeable future.

When we look at Nilsson’s best season and place across the entire league, his 131-point campaign ranks 12th overall. He’s tied with Teemu Selanne (1992-93) from his rookie season with the Winnipeg Jets, Denis Savard when he was a member of the Chicago Blackhawks (1987-88), and Brett Hull when he was sniping goals in St. Louis (1990-91). That’s not bad company since all three players are already in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The Path to the IIHF Hall of Fame

Nilsson stayed with the Flames until the 1984-85 season before a trade sent him to the Minnesota North Stars. The deal included a third-round pick in 1986 (Brad Turner), with the North Stars sending away a second-round selection in 1985 (Joe Nieuwendyk) and a second-round pick in 1987 (Stephane Matteau). 

Nilsson played for two seasons in Minnesota before returning to Alberta to play for the Edmonton Oilers, where he won his only Stanley Cup in 1987. Shortly after the celebration, he returned to Europe and played eight seasons before returning to the NHL for a six-game stint with the Oilers in 1994-95. After two more seasons in Europe in 1995-96 and 1997-98, he retired from professional hockey. 

Related: A Look Back at Kent Nilsson’s Underrated Career

In 553 NHL games, Nilsson finished his career with one championship, two All-Star Game selections, and 686 points. Those numbers have him in 13th place amongst Sweden-born players. Furthermore, he still owns three Flames records, points in a season, assists in a season, and shorthanded goals in a season. His contributions on the ice led to his introduction to the IIHF Hockey Hall of Fame in 2006 and the Swedish Hockey Hall of Fame in 2012. Currently, he’s still active in the hockey community serving as a European scout for the Florida Panthers.

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