Who scored the most goals in one NHL season? (and how it happened)

Every sport has its most coveted records. In the sport of hockey the records everyone wants are around goals – and most of the best ones are held by one player.

Who scored the most goals in one NHL season? Wayne Gretzky with the Edmonton Oilers scored 92 goals in the 1981-82 season to set the record for most goals in an NHL season. Gretzky broke Phil Esposito’s previous record of 76 goals in the 1970-71 season. 

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Let’s look at the story behind this amazing season and how the Great One got there.

How did Gretzky break the record? 

1981-82 was Gretzky’s third season in the NHL.

He had already established himself as the most dynamic offensive player in the league winning the Art Ross trophy for most points the year before. That year the Great One scored 55 goals and added 109 assists for a league record 164 points in a season.

Even with the scoring record under his belt, people knew that Gretzky had more to give but no one could have dreamed what Gretzky was about to do next. 

At the start of the 1981-82 NHL season Gretzky got off to a torrid scoring pace. Although he didn’t score in the first two games of the season Gretzky still managed to get 13 goals in 13 games during October. 

As the season went on Gretzky picked up the pace as he got an amazing 18 goals in 13 games in November. 

Perhaps the most memorable night of the whole season was when Gretzky got his 50th goal in his 39th game against the Philadelphia Flyers. He did it by scoring his 5th goal of the game into an empty in Edmonton as the fans went berserk. (Check this out to see who scored the most goals in a game – it is one of the records the Great One doesn’t have!)

Check out the video below of one of Gretzky’s most famous goals: 

The question then turned to: Can Gretzky get 100 goals in a season? 

Gretzky gave himself a shot as he entered the last 14 games with 82 goals. He need to average 1.28 goals per game to get him to 100. Up to this point Gretzky had been averaging 1.05 goals per game. It would take something special, but he had a shot at it. 

However, a stretch of games at the start of March would prove costly for Gretzky trying to get to 100 goals in a season. The Edmonton OIlers lost 6 games in a row to begin March, where Gretzky scored zero goals. Only twice before had Gretzky gone more than one game without a goal – the two games to start the season, and four games in a row in early December. 

“It was a thrill to get 92 goals, but in some ways, I thought I let myself down by not getting 100,” he says. “Maybe I should have pushed myself more.” Source

Gretzky would finish the rest of the season strong scoring 10 goals in his last 8 games. 

He would score his 92nd goal and the one that everyone is now chasing on March 18th in an away game against the Los Angeles Kings. 

Whose record did Gretzky break?

Wayne Gretzky had to break someone’s record along the way, and that person was Phil Esposito. 

Esposito was the generational star of the 1970s. He had a season for the ages in 1970-71 when scored 76 goals and added 76 assists for 152 points. The goals and points markers were both Records in the NHL record books until Gretzky came along and beat them. 

The closest anyone got to the record before Gretzky was Mike Bossy in 1980-81 with 68 goals. So, the record was breakable, however no one thought it was going to be shattered.

Gretzky got his 77th goal of the season on Feb. 24th, 1982 against the Buffalo Sabres

Who is the next closest to Gretzky?

Well, the next closest to Gretzky is Gretzky. Two seasons after his 92 goal season, Gretzky would set his second career high on 87 goals. 

The next closest person not named Gretzky was Brett Hull, who scored 86 goals in the 1990-91 season. The only other person to score more than 80 goals was Mario Lemieux who scored 85 goals in 1988-89.

Will the record ever be broken?

The answer to this is probably no. Many of Gretzky’s records are now termed unbreakable. 

Gretzky is the greatest offensive player to ever play the game of hockey. However, it has less to do with that then the style of the NHL game. 

Gretzky played in an era where there was simply more goal scoring. Gretzky and Lemieux ushered in an era of high-scoring free-wheeling hockey. 

For instance, the closest any active player has got to Gretzky is Alexander Ovechkin in 2007-08 when he scored 65. The last player to score 60 goals was Steven Stamkos in 2011-12.

In the current NHL, if you get over 50 goals you have an extremely good chance of winning the Rocket Richard trophy for most goals in a season. 

The Last 5 seasons:

Pastarnak/Ovechkin – 48

Ovechkin – 51

Ovechkin – 49

Crosby – 45

Ovechkin – 50

The style of play has changed so much since the 1980s when Gretzky played. Games are more defensive, goalies are better and there are just not as many goals. 

The NHL is always looking for ways to add more offence into the game – to increase scoring. However, it is hard to imagine that the game can be tweaked that much to get it to the scoring levels of the 1980s. 

The coaches and systems today are all designed at preventing goals. What coaches in the NHL do are setup their teams in a defensive mode first. If you can’t play defence you can’t win games.

With philosophies like this dominating the game, the fundamental shift required to get the NHL back to 1980s levels simply will not happen. 

92 goals in one season seems to be one of Gretzky’s unbreakable records. 

Top 10 Goals Scored in a Single Season

Wayne Gretzky1981-8292
Wayne Gretzky1983-8487
Brett Hull1990-9186
Mario Lemieux1988-8985
Alexander Mogilny1992-9376
Phil Esposito1970-7176
Teemu Selanne1992-9376
Wayne Gretzky1984-8573
Brett Hull1989-9072
Jari Kurri1984-8571

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