The chase for 70 goals: Bernie Nicholls once did it and thinks Auston Matthews can, too

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When Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in the summer of 1988, Kings center Bernie Nicholls knew life was going to be different. He just didn’t know how different. Gretzky’s arrival in Los Angeles ultimately changed everything about the NHL in the United States, from how it was perceived to how it would perform, and it changed Nicholls’ career as well. 

Nicholls got to play on the power play and kill penalties with Gretzky. And when the chemistry between Gretzky and his original linemates, Luc Robitaille and Dave Taylor, never really materialized, Nicholls inherited them. Suddenly three elite forwards played as a de facto second line drawing all sorts of favorable defensive matchups. 

It resulted in the greatest single season of Nicholls’ 18-year NHL career — 70 goals, 80 assists, 150 points. 

Nicholls is one of only eight players in NHL history to score 70 goals in a single season. It was a brilliant, notable, and unexpected achievement, but not without precedent.

In 12 years between 1981-82 and 1992-93, at least one player scored 70 goals in 10 of those years. It began with Gretzky’s record-setting 92-goal season in ’81-82 and ended when Teemu Selanne and Alex Mogilny each scored 76 goals a dozen years later.  

But since then? 

In 30-plus seasons and counting, not a single NHL goal scorer has crossed the 70-goal threshold. Alex Ovechkin, who has a chance to reel in Gretzky for the NHL’s all-time goal-scoring lead, topped out at 65 in 2007, his third NHL season. 

With the NHL All-Star Game on the horizon this weekend, the question is: Can the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews become the ninth?

Matthews reached the break with 40 goals in 46 games played — he missed one earlier this season because of illness — which translates into a 70-goal pace. Matthews would need to score 30 goals in Toronto’s remaining 35 games to get to 70. 

Lots of things can derail a 70-goal season, primarily injuries and the inevitable moment where even a great NHL scorer has an unexpected cold patch. Mostly though, those who’ve scored 70 goals in a season, or contributed to a 70-goal season, agree: For it to happen, just about everything has to go right.

Nicholls topped out at 70 thanks to a hat trick in the second-last game of the season. His final goal went into an empty net.

But Robitaille, Nicholls’ linemate for most of that year with the Kings, remembers one goal that illustrated how well things were going.

“Bernie’s going to the net, a guy trips him, he’s falling down by the post,” Robitaille recalled. “Steve Duchesne shoots, and it hits Bernie in the back and goes in the net.” 

Nicholls profited from playing the power play with Gretzky, but the reality is only 49 of his 150 points came with the man advantage. He also had eight short-handed goals and six short-handed assists as well. 

Of the eight players in NHL history who have scored 70 or more goals in a single season, Gretzky leads the way, having done it four times. Brett Hull is next at three. Mario Lemieux did it twice and also had two 69-goal seasons. The others to score 70 were Selanne, Mogilny, Jari Kurri, Phil Esposito, and Nicholls. Only Esposito, who scored 76 in the 1970-71 season, did it prior to that concentrated 12-year span when NHL goal scoring peaked. 

Nicholls watches a lot of Maple Leafs games on TV. He thinks Matthews has a legitimate chance to join the 70-goal club.

“His hands and the way he one-times it from the off side are really impressive,” Nicholls said. “There’s no one better in the world than Connor McDavid, but Matthews is really special. Every time he gets the puck, there’s a chance it’ll go in. And there’s not many players you could ever say that about. 

“Mario was the best goal scorer of my era. Brett Hull’s one-timer was unbelievable. Gretz was just Gretz, but he couldn’t go through a team like Mario could. And Wayne would say it himself — his shot couldn’t break an eggshell. Whereas Ovechkin just overpowers the goalie.”

Seattle Kraken general manager Ron Francis joined the NHL the same season Gretzky set the single-season goal-scoring record — and eventually spent six seasons as Lemieux’s teammate in Pittsburgh, where they won two Stanley Cups together. 

According to Francis, back when 70 goals was a not insurmountable target, the NHL game — and how teams prepared for the game — was a lot more laissez-faire than it is today. 

“Most teams nowadays have not one but two video coaches. The staff is so much bigger than it once was,” Francis said. “There’s a lot more video work done, and coaches teach structure in all three zones — not just the D zone, or the neutral zone, but in all three zones. There’s just a lot more structure today in everything you’re trying to.”

The NHL style began to change, and scoring began to diminish, soon after the New Jersey Devils won their first Stanley Cup in the 1995-96 season, which ushered in the NHL’s so-called Dead Puck era. By the 2003-04 season, a trio of players — Jarome Iginla, Rick Nash and Ilya Kovalchuk — tied for the NHL goal-scoring title with only 41 apiece.

Things gradually began to improve for goal scorers following the 2004-05 lockout when the NHL cracked down on obstruction and interference, helping to usher in a new, more free-flowing era. Scoring has gradually crept up in recent years and at the midpoint of the current season, seven players were on pace to score 50 goals or more, according to NHL Stats: Matthews, Nikita Kucherov, Artemi Panarin, David Pastrnak, Sam Reinhart, Zach Hyman and Brock Boeser. Since then, a surge by Nathan MacKinnon has also moved him within range of the 50-goal mark. If all eight were to hit the mark, it would be the most 50-goal scorers in a season since 1995-96.

McDavid and Matthews will be two of the four captains for this weekend’s All-Star Game in Toronto. Nicholls believes McDavid and Matthews are motivated to one-up each other. And while Nicholls thinks their emerging rivalry fuels them both, he also believes one old sports cliche is a myth. 

Nicholls believes people who set records want to stay in the record book for as long as possible. 

“People always say, ‘Records are meant to be broken’ and my answer is, ‘That’s because you don’t have any records,’” Nicholls said. “When someone has a record and it’s broken, you’ll always hear the person say, ‘I’m happy for the guy.’ I do some charity stuff with Rick Vaive. When Auston broke Vaive’s record (for goals by a Maple Leaf in a single season), Rick said, ‘I’m happy for him.’ I said, ‘Rick, there’s no chance in hell you’re happy for him.’ You want that record to still be your record. 

“In L.A., I’ve still got the (single-season) goals record. If some kid comes along and breaks that, I’ll be pissed!”

(Top photos: Mike Powell /Allsport via Getty Images, Dan Hamilton / USA Today)

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