When you think of legendary Calgary Flames players, names like Jarome Iginla, Theoren Fleury, Joe Nieuwendyk often come to mind. Perhaps players like Mike Vernon, Lanny McDonald, and Al MacInnis, as well. However, one name that rarely seems to get thought of or mentioned is Swedish forward Kent Nilsson.
Nilsson spent six seasons with the Flames organization, although only five of those came in Calgary, as the team had previously been located in Atlanta. While his tenure with the team was not overly long, it certainly was spectacular, and it seemingly came out of nowhere. Nilsson was drafted by the Flames in the fourth round (64th overall) of the 1976 NHL Amateur Draft. At the time, he was coming off of a very good season for Djurgardens of the Swedish Elite League (SEL), with 28 goals and 54 points in 36 games. Despite the big numbers, he was still not considered to be a top-end NHL prospect.
After being drafted, he spent another season in the SEL, where he put up very solid totals again with 30 goals and 48 points in 36 games. The following season, 1977-78, he headed to North America, but elected to play in the World Hockey Association (WHA) for the Winnipeg Jets rather than the NHL. It was with the Jets that people started to realize just how good he was, as he put up back-to-back 107-point seasons. The NHL and the WHA merged prior to the 1979-80 season, and Nilsson was picked up by the Flames, quickly showing his stats with the Jets were no fluke.
Where It All Began
His first NHL season came with the Atlanta Flames, and he put on a show. His 93 points led the team in scoring by 16 points, while his 40 goals led by 9. The Flames then relocated to Calgary for the start of the 1980-81 season, and Nilsson’s stats only continued to get better. That next season saw him put up a career-high 49 goals and 131 points, which led the team in scoring by a ridiculous 48 points.
Nilsson continued to dominate over the next four seasons with the Flames while healthy. Despite missing time in all of those seasons, he still managed to lead the team in scoring for three of them. He was also able to break the 100-point marker again during the 1982-83 season, and likely would have a few more times over his career if not for injuries.
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After the 1984-85 season in which he put up 99 points, the Flames traded Nilsson to the Minnesota North Stars for the second-round (27th-overall) pick at the 1985 NHL Entry Draft. While trading your best player straight up for a draft pick doesn’t seem like a good idea, it ended up working out quite well for the Flames as they went on to select future Hall of Famer Joe Nieuwendyk.
Production Drop Off
While Nilsson’s first season with the North Stars was still solid, he wasn’t able to produce like he had on the Flames, despite being on a much more offensively talented team. His 60 points in 61 games was by far and away the worst point-per-game season of his NHL career. The 1986-87 season was very similar, as he had 46 points in 44 games before being dealt to the Edmonton Oilers midway through the season. He played in 17 regular season games with the Oilers, posting 17 points, and played a key role in helping the team win their third Stanley Cup, with 19 points in 21 games.
After his first and only Stanley Cup Championship, Nilsson shocked the world when he elected to go play in Italy the following season. While his play hadn’t been as good as it was with the Flames, he was still one of the more talented players in the game. He was clearly too good to be playing in Italy, as he scored 60 goals and added 72 helpers in just 35 games.
He stayed playing in Europe for another six seasons, spread out between Switzerland, Sweden, as well as Austria, before deciding to give the NHL another shot for the 1994-95 season. While many had high hopes for his return, it was clear he was no longer the same player, as he posted just one goal in six games before deciding to be done with the NHL for good.
While it is surprising to see a player leave the NHL while still performing at a high level, there have since been stories regarding Nilsson that may help explain. Despite his natural talent, he was often criticized for his lack of effort and intensity, as well as his nonchalant play in the defensive zone. He also played a very nonphysical style, appearing to never want to go near the boards and battle for pucks. Many questioned his desire to win, along with his attitude.
Unfortunately for Nilsson, his inability to raise his game in the playoffs gave fans and media even more reason to pile on him. Not only did his play not pick up in the postseason, but it actually dropped fairly dramatically in terms of point production. While he was able to put up an extremely impressive 686 points in 553 regular season games, he had a much lower point-per-game pace in the playoffs with 52 in 59 games played.
While those are great stats for most, they were disappointing for Nilsson who many believed could be one of if not the best player in the game with a little more effort.
World Class Skill
While some questioned his heart, there was nobody that could question Nilsson’s skill. Even players he was competing against marveled at how talented the Swedish forward was. In fact, Wayne Gretzky once said that Nilsson might have been the most skilled player he saw in his entire career. This is a high endorsement from any NHL player let alone the best of all time, and goes to show just how terrific of a player Nilsson was.
On top of that, Nilsson also ranks quite high on some all-time NHL scoring lists. While he likely will never reach the Hall of Fame given that he didn’t play in enough games, he sits ninth all-time in NHL history with a 1.241 points-per-game pace amongst players who had at least 500 points in the NHL. He is the second-highest Swedish-born player on that list, trailing only Peter Forsberg who is eighth place with 1.250.
Where Is He Now?
When he disappeared from the NHL, it gave the impression that Nilsson did not care much for the media and didn’t want to be the center of attention.
That seems to be the same to this day, as the now 63-year-old is not heard of much in the hockey world. However, he is back with an NHL team, as he is currently working as a European scout for the Florida Panthers.
He is also the father of former NHLer Robert Nilsson. Robert was a former first-round pick of the New York Islanders, and played in 252 career games between them and the Oilers. Much like his father, he was highly skilled, but he was never able to translate that skill to the NHL level. He left the league after the 2009-10 season and played professionally in Europe until 2018. (from ‘Father and son Nilsson leave town,’ Edmonton Journal, 07/23/2010)
While it likely has a lot to do with the length of his career, Nilsson is rarely talked about now, and is never considered in any categories amongst the all-time greats. It’s too bad he left the NHL at a young age, as he likely would be talked about as one of the game’s best had he stuck around. Despite not getting the recognition he deserves, it is impossible to argue his greatness given the numbers he posted over his eight-season career.
Colton Pankiw is a former Jr. A hockey player who now provides his knowledge of the game through writing. He’s been a very active and reliable source for nearly two years at The Hockey Writers. He is a credentialed writer for the Calgary Flames but also does features on other teams throughout the league. Other writing contributions include: Oil On Whyte, NHLtradetalk.com, and Markerzone.com. Colton is also a co-host of both Oilers Overtime and Flames Faceoff podcasts. Any interview requests or content info can be made through him on Twitter. Take a look at his work here.