Skip to main content

 

CHASING HISTORY

By George Johnson - CalgaryFlames.com

 

Two decades have vanished in a puff of smoke since the old conjurer put his false-bottom trunk, fun-loving rabbit and nothing-up-my-sleeve/presto! Jofa top hat permanently into storage.

"There are so many talented players today," Kent Nilsson is saying from a golf course in Orlando, Fla., where he's attempting to abracadabra a par into birdie.

"The skill and hockey sense in the National Hockey League right now is just fantastic.

"No hooking or holding, fighting isn't a part of the game anymore.

"These guys are able to go out and play. To not worry about that other stuff. That first line in Colorado … so good. (Elias) Pettersson in Vancouver, I think, has a chance to be the best Swede ever.

"Wait'll he puts on another 20 pounds.

"I love watching the game today.

"And the guy you're talking about is a part of that."

Way back in the 1980-81 season, the Magic Man - someone so extravagantly gifted Wayne Gretzky once anointed him the purest talent he'd ever laid eyes on - produced his most famous, most enduring trick, the equivalent of catching a speeding bullet between his central incisors or Houdini's Chinese Water Torture Cell illusion:

A Flames franchise-record 131 points.

Since then, that number has taken on the shimmer, locally at any rate, of Wilt's 100-point night or DiMaggio's 56-game hit streak.

Something incandescent. Otherworldly. Bordering on mythic.

And, apparently, unassailable.

Until, Nilsson believes, now.

"Oh yeah, he can break it," he says, referencing the necromancer of today, Johnny Gaudreau. "If not this year, next year. Or the year after that.

"He can do it.

"He's still so young. He's only going to get better.

"I haven't seen him as much this year as in the last two years but he's obviously having an unbelievable season.

"If he can play all 82 games he has a great chance. That's the key. You miss even one or two, you fall behind and it's tough to catch up.

"Very, very smart. I watched him here against the Panthers last year and he was just outstanding. He does things you can't teach.

"He doesn't have to go find the puck; it comes to him.

"That's the way with all great players."

 

Gaudreau, of course, has a city in thrall at the moment, gorging himself on points the way he did Skittles set out by dad Guy in learning to skate at the Hollydell Ice Arena in Sewell, N.J., as a tyke.

His first-half explosion is generating 100-point talk, Art Ross Trophy candidacy conversation and even Hart Trophy buzz.

When asked if he flicks on the 50-inch flat screen and sees shards of his long-ago self in the mercurial No. 13, Nilsson pauses.

"Yeah, in some ways. He's a little feistier than I was. I'm a little bigger than he is.

"But we both like to make plays, create things. The hockey sense, the way we see the game, is similar."

So then: Mini-Magic, maybe?

Consider that only a half-dozen Calgary Flames - Nilsson, Joe Mullen, Hakan Loob, Mike Bullard, Al MacInnis and Theo Fleury - have reached or exceeded 100 over a single season, and none since Fleury all the way back in '92-93.

Consider also that no one has crept to within 20 points of Nilsson's staggering total since he set it out there for those that followed to chase - the tungsten-tough Mullen coming closest at 110 during the '88-89 Stanley Cup campaign en route to collecting the Lady Byng and Emery Edge trophies along with a first all-star team berth.

So in front of our eyes is shaping up one the greatest of individual Flames' campaigns.

Sit back and enjoy.

With Nilsson's total still well off on the horizon, the first order of business for Gaudreau is gaining admittance into the franchise's ultra-exclusive Century Club.

A canvasing of the previous six Flames' 100-pointers and it sounds as if they wouldn't bet against his meriting a seventh key to the club's executive washroom.

Bullard (left), Lanny McDonald and Nick Fotio look on during the '86 Cup Final

"If you're going to score points," says Bullard, who tallied 103 as a Flame in '87-88, "you need to see two people connecting. Well, Gaudreau and (Sean) Monahan connect.

"Seems if the Flames score four goals they've got two, anyway.

"Johnny Gaudreau's so patient with the puck. So fast. So smooth. So slippery. When I watch Gaudreau and (Mitch) Marner, I see them as the same type of player. Gaudreau's a better skater, though.

"There's no question teams change their way of playing the last month or two. Because most everybody's playing for something, everything tightens up. That's just the way it is. So it won't be easy.

"But if anybody's going to reach 100 points, he has one of the best shots. Calgary looks like a real dominant hockey team right now. Having a lot more balanced attack than the last couple years will help Johnny and Monahan. Your offensive guys will always get points when they don't have to play against the same line all the time.

"Being an offensive player during my career, I just enjoy watching him play. I mean, c'mon, if you're a fan of the game how could you not enjoy watching Johnny Gaudreau play? There's only a select few guys who can go down 1-on-1 on a defenceman and make him look stupid.

"He's one of them."

 

From his home in Cape Cod, Mullen - like Gaudreau, a Boston College star alum - also fancies Johnny Hockey's chances.

"He's all over the TV, so you can't help but follow him," laughs Mullen. "Every night you turn it on there seems to be a Johnny Gaudreau highlight package on.

"I remember my season pretty clearly. I never had another one like it. My only season with 50 goals and 100 points.

"Those are the marks everyone wants to reach and not a lot of guys have done it lately. The guys that do are really good players. It's fun to see more and more getting close, anyway.

"(Gaudreau)'s been a very consistent player throughout his career so far and he's only getting better right now. He loves the game - you can tell. He smiles all the time. And enjoying yourself is such a big part of everything.

"There's no reason he shouldn't hit it."

Arguably the most luminous turn among the six Calgary 100-point men would be MacInnis' astonishing 103-points of '90-91, becoming one of only five defencemen - the others, BTW, named Orr, Coffey, Leech and Potvin - to ever hit the century.

"The pace that he's on, the way that line and the team are playing, you would certainly believe he's going to reach that milestone," reckons the Flames' greatest-ever D-man, now VP of Hockey Ops for the St. Louis Blues.

"They're having a tremendous season. The line has lots of chemistry, has become one of the top lines in the league. You check the summaries and he's always got a couple of points.

"So it certainly looks like he'll get it done."

For Loob, now in charge of pro European scouting for the Flames, '87-88 proved to be a benchmark. Still the only Swede to score 50 goals, he tacked on 56 assists that year.

"Johnny's awareness on the ice is what stands out for me," says the '89 Cup winner. "He's a step, or two, ahead of the other players. That gives you a little more time, allows you create. And he's starting to realize he has a great shot.

"Everything is just … there.

"It's almost a sixth sense.

"Playing with the right people he's getting better and better defensively, too. You don't see that too often with offensive players.

"His progress, his development, is unbelievable."

 

The addition of the two-way-trustworthy Elias Lindholm via trade from Carolina has been an undeniable catalyst in propelling the gold-dust twins, Gaudreau and Monahan, to even greater heights.

"I just look at myself,'' recalls Loob. "Same thing happened with me, Joey Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts. When we were put together, perfect fit. When you have that kind of fit, it gives you a chance to do something almost every night you play.

"That's exactly what's happening with his line right now."

The length of time between franchise 100-point marksmen takes the last man to do it by surprise.

"It is a bit … astonishing," confesses Fleury. "We played in an era with clutching and grabbing, left-winger lock, all that crap. But, on the other hand, the goaltending is so much superior now to what it's ever been. Used to be, goalies would be in the bottom half of your team in terms of athleticism. Now, they're the best you've got.

"So in some ways it was harder back then, in some ways it's harder now.

"There's no reason he shouldn't be a 100-point guy. As long as you surround him with talent. One year I scored 50, I had the chance to play with (Doug) Gilmour. I got close to 100 on a good line with (Michael) Nylander and (German) Titov, who went right from driving a tank into the NHL.

"It's great to see what this team's doing now because it's a lot more fun to watch offence than five guys across the blueline and hoping you get a goal the last 30 seconds of a game.

"And he's a big part of that."

There remains a fair distance to travel before Apr. 6 and Game 82.

Nothing is certain, naturally, and, as Bullard noted, the slog only becomes tougher charging down the backstretch. But with 69 points in 47 starts, Gaudreau has given himself a solid shot at 100 and at least an outside fling at flirting with Nilsson's towering total.

Given his current PPG rate of 1.47 - a tall task to maintain to the finish - the wee wizard would net 120.

Coming on 39 years have elapsed since the Magic Man conjured up a 131-point masterwork for the ages. A for-so-long seemingly-unreachable total that its creator feels could, at long last, be in some degree of peril.

Whether this year, next year or the year after that.

"No, no," protests the old conjurer, asked if he'd be in the least peeved to relinquish such a prestigious, long-standing watershed. "Why would I? Records are made to be broken. It'd be good for hockey, good for Calgary and good for him.

"He's got all the skills, plays the right way, hard every night.

"Obviously a really, really good player."

Burnished by his own singular brand of magic.

VIEW MORE FLAMES EXTRA ARTICLES

Check out more of our in-depth, long reads on your team, published every Saturday or Sunday during the season.