One for the Ages: Mats Naslund’s 1985-86 NHL Season

Mats Naslund played a style of hockey that was far larger than his 5-foot-7, 160-pound frame. Possessing tremendous speed and an ability to generate offense seemingly on a whim, Naslund was the star forward for the Montreal Canadiens during the decade of the 1980s. Combining his skill, determination, and Nordic heritage, the fans of Montreal quickly donned him as “Le Petit Viking” – “The Little Viking”.

For eight straight seasons Naslund was Montreal’s most talented and most offensive weapon. When it came to star power, the 1980s were an odd time for the Canadiens. Gone were the days of Jacques Lemaire, Yvan Cournoyer, Peter Mahovlich, and Rejean Houle. Even “The Flower” Guy Lafleur and Steve Shutt were on the downswing of their respective careers as the 1980s got underway. Montreal went from decades of having a plethora of offensive firepower to having just two or three more prolific scorers in the mid and later years of that decade. None were more potent than Naslund, and he was really the quintessential forward for the hockey club.

From the 1980-81 NHL season up through this present 2018-19 season, the Canadiens have had one player assemble a 100-point season. This seems especially difficult to accept when knowing that the 1980s and early-1990s were chock full of goals and points. Yet while the Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders ran roughshod on the stats columns during their glory days, Montreal for once took more of a back seat.

Mats Naslund #26
Mats Naslund #26 stands head and shoulders above his Canadiens teammates during a game at the Forum in the late 1980s (Photo by Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images).

That is, with the exception of one particular campaign. After wrapping up the 1970s with four straight Stanley Cup championships, Montreal went into a bit of a drought. They would have one season in the midst of the Wayne Gretzky glory days in which they would reach hockey’s pinnacle. Not by any coincidence, when the Canadiens raised the Stanley Cup for the 1985-86 season, Mats Naslund would record the only 100-point season of his career – 110 points to be exact. No Canadien has reached the century plateau since, and perhaps not surprisingly Montreal has only won a single Cup since.

The 100 points, a single championship in the middle of a decade, the goodbye to the great Habs of decades prior – these are what essentially make Naslund’s 1985-86 season one for the ages.

Getting Naslund to Montreal

With more than three decades having gone by, fans may tend to forget how crafty and creative Naslund was with a puck. He was a brilliant playmaker, who six times during the 1985-86 season had games with at least three assists. Additionally Naslund had nine other games when he recorded a pair of helpers. At the close of the season he had compiled a total of 67 of them. But it took a little stretch before Naslund’s setup skills made their way to Montreal.

The Canadiens drafted Naslund in the second round of the 1979 NHL Entry Draft with the 37th pick overall. Only two European players were selected higher – fellow Swedes Tomas Jonsson (25th) and the late Pelle Lindbergh (35th). Naslund likely would have been selected higher were it not for his smallish frame and the still incorrect stereotype that Swedes could not handle the physicality of the NHL. Not including goaltenders, he scored more career points than 27 of the other players who were selected ahead of him. Naslund was also one of just eight of the top-37 players selected that year to have won a Stanley Cup in his career.

Unlike first overall selection Rob Ramage or other high picks like Mike Gartner, Ray Bourque, Kevin Lowe, and Rick Vaive, Naslund would not make an immediate jump to the NHL after the 1979 Draft. After he was selected he would remain in Sweden playing for Brynäs IF for three full seasons prior to making his debut with the Canadiens. Naslund’s finest season with Brynäs to that point would be his last in Sweden. He finished the 1981-82 campaign scoring 24 goals and 18 assists for 42 points in 36 games.

Ripened and ready, Naslund played as a Canadien for the first time during 1982-83. Right from the get-go he performed as nearly a point-per-game player, and he would remain there or better for the rest of his tenure in Montreal. In his rookie season Naslund scored 26 goals and 45 assists for 71 points in 74 games. Such a performance saw him named as the left winger for the NHL’s All-Rookie Team that year.

Naslund Explodes During 1985-86

Naslund’s goal totals went up three straight seasons after his rookie year. His sophomore season saw him achieve 29 and the 1984-85 season saw him leap even more with 42 tallies in total. The stepping stones would all be nicely placed toward what would be his best NHL season.

The 1985-86 Montreal Canadiens were blatantly rookie laden. Lafleur and Shutt were both now retired. In fact, the only true connections to the 1970s that remained on the team were Mario Tremblay and Hockey Hall of Famers Larry Robinson and Bob Gainey. With the exception of those three, the longtime Habs were replaced by 11 total rookies who helped make up the squad that season – Mike Lalor, Claude Lemieux, John Kordic, Mike McPhee, Brian Skrudland, Stephane Richer, Steve Rooney, David Maley, Sergio Momesso, Randy Bucyk, and an incredible young goaltender who had emerged named Patrick Roy.

These particular Canadiens also had some European flavor to them as the Swedish Naslund was joined by fellow countryman Kjell Dahlin and Czech defenseman Petr Svoboda. In addition to Roy’s all-out goaltending performances, Naslund’s scoring was the most important component to ensure a Stanley Cup victory that season. Playing in all 80 regular season games, he compiled career highs in goals (43), assists (67) and points (110). That was enough to be 24 points ahead of the next highest scorer on the Canadiens – Bobby Smith, who would be an eventual 1,000-plus career point scorer himself.

A Closer Look at Naslund’s 110-Point Campaign

As great as 110 points may sound, keep in mind that the 1985-86 season was also the same year that Wayne Gretzky set the NHL record for most points in a season with 215. “The Great One” would also leave his mark with 163 assists that same year too – the most in NHL history as well, and a mark that will never be topped.

Be that as it may, Naslund’s totals still held their own throughout the league. His 67 assists were eighth best in the NHL, while his 110 points ranked just as well. Notable players whom Naslund scored more than that year include Marcel Dionne, Dale Hawerchuk, Bernie Federko, Bryan Trottier, Dino Ciccarelli, Glenn Anderson, Michel Goulet, and a number of other players who would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Somewhat interesting to note is that even though he scored 43 goals none of them resulted in a hat-trick for the little Swede in any of the 80 games that year.

We take a look now at some of the finer moments from Naslund’s 1985-86 NHL season:

Oct. 10, 1985: In their first game of the 1985-86 season, the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-3. Naslund would score the game-winning goal with assists coming from Guy Carbonneau and Craig Ludwig. He would then proceed to net the Habs’ fifth goal of the game from Stephane Richer and Lucien DeBlois. Both of his goals came against veteran netminder Gilles Meloche, while Roy picked up the victory for Montreal.

Oct. 12, 1985: At home against the Chicago Blackhawks Naslund would assemble a four-point night, as Montreal sent 45 shots at goaltender Warren Skorodenski. Montreal would win the game 6-3. Naslund would set up goals for Tom Kurvers and DeBlois, while scoring two goals himself. Within the first two games of the season he had already scored six points.

Oct. 26, 1985: The Canadiens dispelled of the visiting Hartford Whalers 5-3. Naslund beat goaltender Mike Liut for a pair of goals, while setting up a tally from Richer as well. Naslund’s second tally of the game put him at 10 goals on the season within the first month.

Nov. 5, 1985: Facing the Whalers once more, Montreal crushed Hartford on their own Connecticut ice by a score of 8-3. Those eight goals came off of only 35 shots from the Canadiens. This would be one of Naslund’s three-helper games as he set up goals from Ryan Walter, Chris Chelios, and Momesso. Poor Liut allowed all eight goals during the game.

Nov. 18, 1985: In the only game played on this particular date, Naslund managed to put another four points home. With Boston visiting the Montreal Forum, he and the Habs joined together to put six goals by Bruins goalie Pat Riggin. Naslund scored Montreal’s first goal himself. Before the game ended 6-2, he assisted on goals by Dahlin, Tremblay, and Carbonneau.

Dec. 2, 1985: Canadiens backup goalie Doug Soetaert whitewashed the Vancouver Canucks 7-0 in Montreal. Naslund factored in on three of his team’s goals. First he would score an unassisted goal – his 17th goal on the year – in the first period. Naslund and Robinson would help set up Dahlin. Then the sixth goal of the game was again scored unassisted by Naslund. Robinson capped everything off with the seventh goal of the game coming from Dahlin and Walter.

Dec. 14, 1985: Facing the Blackhawks once more, this time Montreal would put six goals past veteran netminder Bob Sauve. After Tremblay opened the scoring from Svoboda, Naslund worked his magic once more when he scored unassisted less than two minutes later. He and Robinson assisted on Richer’s 10th of the season. 6:17 into the second period Naslund would complete his 23rd on the year. Once more, Robinson and Dahlin helped him do it.

Dec. 27, 1985: Again showcasing his ability to dish out pucks to others, Naslund picked up three assists as Montreal defeated the New Jersey Devils 7-3. Oddly enough, the Devils actually out-shot Montreal 36-34. As Glenn “Chico” Resch did his best to make stops for New Jersey, Naslund assisted on goals by Smith, Rooney, and Dahlin.

Jan. 6, 1986: Naslund had another 3-assist night as Montreal crushed the St. Louis Blues 9-2. Furthermore, he finished the game as a remarkable plus-6. Goaltender Greg Millen gave up all nine goals scored by the Canadiens for a woeful .690 save-percentage. Naslund helped set up Montreal’s first three goals of the game coming off of goals by Dahlin, Walter, and Smith. They would be his 40th, 41st, and 42nd assists on the season.

Jan. 25, 1986: Every player has an oddball game now and then, and this one was Naslund’s. Montreal won a tight game in overtime over the Toronto Maple Leafs by a score of 3-2. Toronto’s Tim Bernhardt stopped 33 of the 36 shots he faced, while Patrick Roy stopped 28 of 30. Despite the closeness of the score, Naslund alone fired 10 shots on goal but came away with just one assist. As it would turn out, that assist was the one that mattered as he and Gaston Gingras set up Smith for the game-winner.

Jan. 27, 1986: Going up against Gilbert Perreault and the Sabres at the Forum, the Canadiens dispelled Buffalo by a score of 4-1. Naslund scored the first goal of the game from Robinson and Dahlin as he beat Jacques Cloutier. Walter would put the Habs up 2-0 before Naslund would score a second goal in the third period from Richer and Tremblay. While the Sabres Phil Housley scored the lone Buffalo goal it would be meaningless by game’s end.

Mar. 13, 1986: This time losing in the Boston Garden by a score of 3-2, Naslund was involved in both Montreal tallies. With the Bruins up 2-0 on goals by Keith Crowder and Geoff Courtnall, Svoboda got the Canadiens on the board when he scored his first goal of the season. Smith and Naslund picked up the assists. The Bruins reacquired their two-goal lead on a score by Barry Pederson in the second. Naslund would pot Montreal’s only other goal of the game slightly more than nine minutes later – it would be his 40th of the season.

Apr. 5, 1986: In the final game of the regular season Naslund and the Canadiens again faced the Buffalo Sabres on Forum ice. Winning the game 4-2, “Le Petit Viking” earned himself three assists once more. Even though Perreault set up a goal and scored one himself, Naslund sent Dahlin to the well once and Smith there twice for Habs tallies. Once again, the Canadiens got the better of Cloutier.

Winning the Stanley Cup With the Habs

With the exception of their matchup in the second round of the 1985-86 playoffs, Naslund and the Canadiens made rather short work of the teams they faced in the post season. They dispelled of the Boston Bruins three games to none in the opening round of the playoffs. The Hartford Whalers would push Montreal to seven games in the second round. Things looked in doubt until Claude Lemieux sent a backhander past Whalers goalie Mike Liut to win the series in overtime by a 2-1 score in Game Seven.

After that it was smoother sailing. The Canadiens would defeat the New York Rangers in the semis four games to one. They would then repeat that same feat in the final against the Calgary Flames to win their 23rd Stanley Cup, and their first within seven seasons.

Naslund scored eight goals and 11 assists for 19 points in 20 playoff games. Seven of those points came in the five games of the Stanley Cup final. Game Three would be his most productive game against the Flames. In a 5-3 Montreal victory, Naslund scored Montreal’s first and third goals of the game and set up Smith for the team’s second. In the Cup-clinching Game Five “Le Petit Viking” was instrumental in ensuring a Habs victory. Montreal won the tightly played game 4-3. Naslund picked up the secondary assists on a Gaston Gingras opening tally, and then proceeded to set up Smith for the Cup-winning goal in the third period. Seven more seasons would go by until the Montreal Canadiens would win another Stanley Cup.

Wrapping up Naslund’s Playing Career

As for Naslund, he would play four more seasons in Montreal and would not fall below 21 goals in any of those seasons. With the exception of his final season with the Canadiens – 1989-90 – he averaged more than a point per game during that same time. For the 1987-88 season Naslund would be awarded the only major individual award of his NHL career when he was the recipient of the Lady Byng Trophy in recognition for his gentlemanly play.

It was also within those last four seasons that he would have a second and final shot at the Stanley Cup. Montreal and Calgary faced each other again for the Cup for the 1988-89 season, but in this instance it would be the Flames returning the favor. Naslund scored 33 goals and 51 assists for 84 points in 77 games that season. Unfortunately for he and his teammates, Calgary would win the series within six games.

After a disappointing 1989-90 season when he registered only 41 points in 72 games – which included career lows in goals (21), assists (20) and points – Naslund would opt to return to playing in Europe. Playing the 1990-91 season with Lugano in Switzerland, he would then head back to his homeland to suit up for Malmö IF for three seasons more.

Rather surprisingly, Naslund would make a return to the NHL during the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season. This time playing for a hated Montreal rival – the Boston Bruins – he still managed to assemble decent point production even at age 35. Naslund scored eight goals and 14 assists for 22 points in 34 games for Boston. The Bruins would be eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup-winning New Jersey Devils in the opening round of the playoffs four games to one. Naslund tallied what would be his last NHL goal in Game Three of the series.

When all was said and done, Naslund played a total of 651 regular season games. Through those games he was able to generate 251 goals and 383 assists for 634 career points. There is always the speculation that Naslund would have been more of lock for Hockey Hall of Fame enshrinement if he had remained in the NHL as opposed to returning to Europe. The Stanley Cup and the 110-point season speak to that. But of greater importance for Naslund was what he could his do in helping his team achieve by the use of his plentiful skills. In the end, utilizing his talents in Switzerland and Sweden made more sense.

Mats Naslund will always hold a special place in the hearts of Montreal Canadiens fans. His smallish stature combined with his magnificent skill naturally made hockey folks take a liking – it is always fun to root for the “little guy” in sports. In this instance that little guy was a “little viking”. He brought Montreal a Stanley Cup, and in the process posted a point total that has not been repeated since. For that, we recognize Naslund’s 1985-86 season as one for the ages.