NHL Draft Stories: The Wrong Nilsson

NHL Draft

The NHL Draft is just under a month away. The draft always provides plenty of drama and intrigue amongst fans and media. This has been true since the inception of the draft. While people tend to get excited about trades and prospects, there are other moments that leave people scratching their heads. For this edition, we go back to 1975 when there was rapid expansion, two leagues battling for supremacy and some teams needed to work out the kinks with their overseas scouting.

The Wrong Nilsson

Drafting During a War

The 70s were a wild time in the NHL. The rival WHA caused the NHL several headaches. They consistently offered big-money contracts to NHL players to try and lure them away. This meant NHL owners would have to start paying bigger money contracts to their players to keep them contented. The WHA also extended this practice to prospects that were not yet drafted. This led to the NHL coming up with some interesting draft rules to try and combat the WHA’s attempts at signing future stars.

Another impact the WHA had on the NHL was rapid expansion. While the ‘next six’ expansion in the NHL precedes the WHA, the WHA and NHL battled over markets to expand into. The WHA began with several teams in untapped markets so the NHL rushed to get new teams into other untapped markets. Between 1970 and 1974 The NHL expanded to Buffalo, Vancouver, New York (Long Island), Atlanta, Washington and Kansas City. With more teams, the quest to find new quality players to fill the rosters began.

One big thing the WHA helped with was expanding the scouting net to find players playing outside of North America. It led to teams having larger scouting teams deployed all over the world looking for new unknown talent. While the WHA was a bit ahead of the NHL in this area, the NHL was quick to catch up. Still, when rushing to catch up, let’s just say mistakes can be made.

1975 NHL Draft

The 1975 NHL draft was pretty unspectacular. It produced zero Hall of Fame players and very few All-Stars. It might actually be one of the worst drafts in NHL history. However, there was a moment that makes this draft, somewhat, memorable.

Kent Nilsson

Kent Nilsson was a prospect out of Sweden playing with Djurgardens IF. During the 1974-75 season, Nilsson put up an impressive 13 goals and 25 points in 28 games. The Swedish center was a fantastic skater and excellent puck handler. Even with his excellent year and offensive potential, not too many teams were interested in Nilsson in the 1975 draft… and with good reason.

The Flames, Again (For the First Time)

Despite his strong showing, Nilsson was not considered a high-end prospect at all. So the Atlanta Flames decided to roll the dice on the skillful Sweed. Or so they thought. In the twelfth round, the Flames selected Torbjorn Nilsson, a Swedish center playing for Skellefteå AIK. The Flames believed they picked Kent Nilsson but they were wrong. For one thing, Nilsson was ineligible for the 1975 draft due to his age. And in case you need it cleared up Torbjorn Nilsson and Kent Nilsson are not the same person. Granted it was only a twelfth-round pick, but it is awfully embarrassing to pick the wrong player. One might think picking the wrong player once would be enough for an organization to learn a lesson, but not for the Flames. Something about that last name Nilsson makes them loopy I guess.

Kent Nilsson 1976 – Actually Draft Eligible

In 1975-76, Nilsson improved his production with Djurgardens IF to the tune of 28 goals, and 54 points in 36 games. Despite this increase in production, Nilsson was again not really considered a top-tier prospect by the NHL. So with a second chance to get it right, the Flames picked KENT Nilsson in the fourth round of the 1976 NHL draft. Nilsson’s production had not gone unnoticed in the WHA either as he was a second-round selection in their 1976 draft as well.

Nilsson stayed in Sweden for the 1976-77 season, now with AIK. He again put up good numbers with 30 goals and 49 points in 36 games. After the 76-77 season, Nilsson was ready to go to North America. The question remained, with which league and team.

Flames Spurned

Nilsson decided to play with the Winnipeg Jets in the WHA rather than the Flames. It was with the Jets that North American fans got to see just how good Nilsson was. Nilsson posted back to back 107-point season with the Jets winning two Avco Cups as well. He was also named the 1978 WHA rookie of the year. Nilsson was proving teams had underestimated him in a big way. Unfortunately for the Flames, Nilsson was doing it for a rival league, despite drafting him (they thought) in two straight drafts.

The Magic Man

The WHA merged with the NHL in 1979. As part of the agreement of the merger, there was a dispersal draft of WHA players that could be claimed by NHL teams. The Flames jumped to finally get Kent Nilsson on their roster. Now, after two drafts and four years, the Flames had their man. The question now was how good could he be in the NHL.

Nilsson did not disappoint with the Flames. In his first season, he netted 40 goals and 93 points. The following season, the Flames relocated to Calgary and Nilsson exploded. He scored 49 goals and 131 points. Nilsson’s 131 points are still the Flames record for points in a season. His incredible skill earned him the nickname ‘The Magic Man”. Nilsson continued his strong play for the Flames over the next five seasons amassing point totals of 55 (in 41 games), 104, 80, and 99. The Flames then traded Nilsson to the Minnesota North Stars for a draft pick that would become Hall of Fame player Joe Nieuwendyk.

Life After the Flames

After he was traded, Nilsson’s production fell considerably. In two seasons with the North Stars, Nilsson produced 60 and 46 point seasons. He was traded to the Edmonton Oilers during the 1986-87 season for the Oilers playoff run. He produced well for the Oilers. The scored 17 points in the final 17 games of the season but he was a key secondary scoring threat with 19 points in 21 playoff games en route to a Stanley Cup victory. After the 1987 playoffs, Nilsson returned to Europe for the remainder (save a six-game return to Edmonton in 1994-95) of his career.