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IN DEPTH: Todd Nelson

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers
Photo by Getty Images.

EDMONTON, AB- Todd Nelson likes to fish. In the off-season, he heads to whichever destination he can to find peace on the water and the thrill of the big catch.

One trait those who go fishing must practice? Patience.

That’s exactly what quality Nelson exhibited as he awaited an opportunity to be a head coach in the National Hockey League. It is what he’s wanted his entire coaching career, and it’s a situation he finds himself in now. Armed with the interim tag, Nelson is in an audition with the Oilers, using Edmonton and the final half of the season as his proving ground.

His path to this point in time has been well documented. A professional playing career spanning six leagues in 12 years was followed by a pair of championships as a head coach in the UHL. That was followed by stints with the Chicago Wolves in the AHL and the Atlanta Thrashers in the NHL as an assistant. And Oilers fans know his resume from the Oklahoma City Barons. While shaping the careers of the Oilers young prospects down on the farm, Nelson compiled a record of 176-111-12-34, since being hired in 2010. He led the Barons to the Western Conference Final in consecutive years and never missed the playoffs behind the bench in OKC.

But what makes Nelson tick as a coach, and his players go to work for him?

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Josh Green was signed by the Oilers to be a veteran presence for their prospects down in Oklahoma City, while providing depth for the big club. Over his career, Green, a second-round pick by the Los Angeles Kings in 1996, has played in over 300 NHL games.

Having been around the professional hockey scene for a long time, Green knew many types of head coaches. But the well-respected veteran had good things to say about Nelson, meeting him at the start of the 2011 season.

Josh Green skates with the Oilers. Photo by Getty Images.

“Right from day one when I arrived in OKC and met Nelly, I could tell this was a coach that was extremely passionate about the game and had an incredible drive to win,” Green said. “He’s a guy that has had success at every level, whether it be a player or behind the bench.”

Green was named captain of the Barons that next season, as he and Nelson led their team to back to back Western Conference Final appearances.

It wasn’t just the older, veteran guys that took to Nelson after good first impressions. During the lockout season (2012-13), sure-fire Oilers contributors Jordan Eberle, Justin Schultz, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins patrolled the Cox Convention Center ice under the guidance and leadership of Nelson and the Barons staff for the first part of the year.

That’s a tough situation for young, budding NHL stars, to have to move their lives to a different city for an undetermined amount of time. But for Eberle, Nelson immediately made the transition as smooth as it could get.

“That was obviously a tough situation because of the lockout and playing down there (when we’d rather be in the NHL), but at the same time we wanted to play,” Eberle said. “He made it easy for us. He made it a fun place to play and that was a really enjoyable four months. We had a great time.”

Photo by Steven Christy | Oklahoma City Barons

Eberle finished second on the team in scoring that season (25 goals, 51 points), despite playing just 34 games with the Barons.

Nugent-Hopkins played just 19 games under Nelson, while dealing with injury, but Nelson left an impression on him as well.

“He was a lot of fun to play for,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “Going in there, everybody told us how fun he was and everybody loved playing for him. We kind of knew that going in. He made things easy for us and tried to be as good to us as he could. We had a lot of fun playing down there and I actually look back on that with a lot of good memories for sure.”

Making that first impression is great and some might say key to starting the player-coach relationship on the right foot. Nelson’s attention to detail is one of the first things that stuck with his current and former players right from the beginning.

“One thing about Nelly is how prepared he is going into games,” Green said. “He does his homework on the opposition better than I’ve ever seen. We knew exactly what we had to do to win each and every night, whether it was 5-on-5 or how we were going to kill penalties and especially what we were going to do on the power play. The attention to detail was incredible, and if we needed to make an adjustment, we did and everyone was on the same page because of how it was communicated to us.”

“He really harps on the little things,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “He’s definitely a detailed man.”

FAMILY ATMOSPHERE

As a player in the American Hockey League for the Portland Pirates, Nelson learned under Barry Trotz, who’d eventually go on to have a long coaching career in the NHL, which continues today in Washington. Nelson made an impression on Trotz back then, showing an eagerness to ask questions. It is no surprise for Trotz to see his former pupil behind an NHL bench today.

“Todd was always one of those guys who would ask questions,” Trotz said. “When he started, he was asking the X and Os questions and now I think he’s asking the right questions about people and managing people. I think that’s when a coach passes over to the other side and I know he’s done a really good job with the team in Oklahoma City there and he’s just gotten better and better. I see him at all the coaching things we do at the draft and he’s trying to get better. For me, that’s what coaching is about. Trying to find the new ways and the better ways to teach not only players, but teach a team. He looks for all that and I think he’s a really good people guy. Our business is about managing people and holding people accountable. If you do those things, everybody knows their roles and what’s expected and with a good communicator you have a really good shot at having some success.”

The most important thing Nelson feels he has taken from Trotz was the knowledge of how to build a culture.

“It’s more or less about developing a culture,” Nelson said. “I think that Barry is really into that and he was somewhat innovative when I played for him and that’s what he taught me, to build a family culture and that’s probably the most important thing.”

Building a culture is at the very top of what Nelson deems is important to winning hockey games. It’s something he set out to do in Oklahoma City almost immediately.

“When you talk about how he likes to build a culture, the culture he's talking about is family,” Green said. “He's all about having a tight-knit group and making it be about the team and not individuals. Individual success comes when the team succeeds. He used to always preach that.”

It’s not just something Nelson preached in OKC, it’s something he lived each and every day.

“He was so genuine in how he cared for his players,” Green said. “Like I said before, the team was a family to him. He treated each and every player with respect and it made us want to go through the wall for him. I know he took losses hard, although he didn't show it, and he was the first one in the room after big wins telling us to crank up the tunes and saying how proud he was of us.”

Photo by Steven Christy | Oklahoma City Barons

Each and every season he instilled some new motto or battle cry into the Barons. The players would tout themselves as the “Greasy Barons” or talk about their “swagger,” which was almost always in abundance. They felt like they were a brotherhood and they were, which was a big reason for their success. Even in the darkest of times, and there were some rough patches especially early on, the Barons found a way to will themselves into the playoffs. Culture was a big part of that.

Last season for example, the Barons found themselves in a season-low 14th place in the Western Conference on January 30, 2014. They suffered through numerous injuries and 152 roster transactions, including 85 before Christmas. Nelson coached a total of 58 skaters, including nine goaltenders. The cards were stacked against them. But from January 30 on, the Barons finished the season 20-7-1-4 and made the playoffs.

“I think last year taught me that you’re never out of a fight,” Nelson said. “You’ve got to keep on getting better and good things will happen. It came down to culture, when we gelled at the right time to finally get our team together.”

Green was only in OKC for two seasons and he didn’t experience last year’s improbable run to the playoffs. But he looks back at his time with Nelson and wishes just one thing.

“I really wish we could have got him a Calder Cup in the two years I was there, but we played hard for him and he got pretty much every player to a level they probably didn't think they could get to. And that really a tell tale sign of how good a coach is,” Green said.

BRINGING IT TO EDMONTON

That kind of atmosphere Nelson created in OKC is what he wanted to bring to Edmonton, from the moment he got a phone call from Oilers General Manager Craig MacTavish, giving him the opportunity he had been waiting for. Coming in to the Oilers locker room as interim coach, Nelson knew what he wanted to accomplish.

“I believe that culture is so important with any hockey team or business for that matter,” Nelson said. “I think that we need to have a family-first attitude. We all have families away from the rink, but once we get to the rink we are a family there. We have to get to a point in time where we care more about each other than we do ourselves. If we get to that point where we’re totally unselfish, then we’re all fighting towards a common goal.”

After a brief transition period in which MacTavish was on the bench with Nelson, helping ease the young coach into an NHL situation, the torch was passed. When Nelson took over on a full-time interim basis, his first order of business was to speak to the team and set the messaging straight.

Photo by Getty Images.

Nelson gathered the players in the locker room before a Sunday practice in December, following the transition.

“I’ve been really fortunate to play on good hockey teams, I’ve been really fortunate to coach good hockey teams and my intention is to make this a good hockey club,” Nelson told the team. “It’s not normal for me to not make the playoffs.”

Nelson’s thoughts on the team’s place in the standings was, “It doesn’t sit well with me.”

In that meeting with the players, Nelson demanded more out of them in practices. He asked for hard work ethic and execution. But he didn’t demand it with an iron fist, he wanted to earn their respect and let them earn his.

“I’m standing here before you where trust and respect is a two-way street,” Nelson told them. “I’m going to have to earn yours and you’re going to have to earn mine.”

That meeting resonated with the team.

“For us, we had a really tough start,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “With a new guy coming in, he obviously wants to make an impact. It really seemed like he cared right away. We all know that he does and he did and still does. I think when you’re a player going through a tough stretch that we went through and you get a new coach who really cares for the team and for the players, every guy individually, it makes a huge difference.”

The players understood the culture Nelson was trying to create.

“He wants to make this place an atmosphere you want to come to,” Eberle said. “As tough as it is when you’re losing, before this may have been the best job in the world for all of us. But if it sucks coming to it then it’s no fun. He’s really tried to make it an enjoyable place to come and in exchange guys are playing a bit looser and we’re playing a bit better.”

So far so good for Nelson, who says he is seeing buy-in from the players.

“I haven’t had any pushback with it. It’s been good, it’s been receptive,” Nelson said. “I think that any time there is a coaching change now the guys are on point. The excuses are taken away from the players and now it’s up to them. This is the business we’ve chosen as coaches and the longevity, there is not very much job security in this game. You’ve got to keep on pushing ahead and sometimes things are out of your hands and you can’t do anything about it. I think the guys have embraced that.”

There has been more fight and more resiliency in an Oilers roster that has been decimated by injury as of late, but has found a way to play competitive hockey against some good teams. They’ve also won games or earned points in games where they’ve had to overcome adversity.

That ability to get the team to play hard for him is something MacTavish acknowledged about Nelson in his first press conference following the coaching change announcement. And today, MacTavish says he’s seeing it at this level.

“Yes it has, and I think we can check off that box now,” MacTavish said. “And that was the question that all coaches coming out of the American Hockey League would have. Can they implement and have the same impact and influence on the group as they had at the American League level? Because he’s done an excellent job there. I think over the short period of time, we see that. The group has executed very well, they’re responding well to Todd, so we can check that box off. The only box left is going to be the tenure and can this level of play and environment be sustained over time and it’s going to take time to check that box off.”

COMMUNICATION

With an injury to Hall, the Oilers coaching staff was looking at different ways to structure the lineup. Given his talent as a first-overall pick and the potential that playing higher up in the depth chart could help spark development, Nail Yakupov was a candidate to be moved next to Nugent-Hopkins. A head coach might just tweak the lines and roll with it, but given Yakupov’s recent success with Derek Roy as his centre, Nelson wanted to discuss it with the 21-year-old first.

Nelson asked Yakupov if he wanted to play with Nugent-Hopkins and, maybe even surprisingly, the young winger said he wanted to stick with Roy. The chemistry he had with the veteran centre was giving Yakupov confidence in his game. So Nelson did just that, adjusting the rest of the lineup accordingly and it led to some success.

It’s an open line of communication with the players that Nelson has had his entire coaching career.

“I like good communication between the players and myself,” Nelson said. “I have an open door policy. If you ever have a problem, please come talk to me right away and we’ll nip it in the bud so we can move on. Sometimes those conversations are tough, sometimes they’re easy but we have to share those, so I think communication is huge because for me to get to know a player you have to talk and have dialogue. I like to find out about them and what they do with their lives and show them that I care. When that happens, it’s usually reciprocal and together we can get through a lot of hardships and adversity.”

When you know Nelson as a person, this style of coaching makes sense. Often seen as approachable and friendly by those who work with him, Nelson has a disarming nature about him. It allows for good conversation and positive vibes, particularly among players who like to feel comfortable when they come to the rink.

“I think that Todd is such a personable coach that if he has an issue or something, he’ll come up to you and tell you. At the same time, he expects a lot from you and he cares a lot,” Eberle said. “It makes him an easy guy to play for. He cares so much about the team that you care and you want to win for him, plain and simple. That’s the way I see it anyway.”

In OKC, Nelson learned when to step on the gas and when to tap the brakes with his players. He knew when to back off and maybe when he needed to hammer something home a little harder. Last season in OKC was maybe the biggest education for Nelson in how to do just that.

“I think the biggest thing is, going through what we did last year, it made me a better coach with how to make adjustments, how to use guys in different situations and basically just how to coach harder. Coaching hard is one thing but you can’t over coach either and I think it made us a lot better as a staff that’s for sure,” he said.

Nelson likes to face adversity together as a unit. There is no coach and player, there is one team. He communicates that on a daily basis to his players.

“I have to walk the walk with them,” Nelson said. “You always have to bring positivity to the rink. There are going to be good days and bad days, but the way I look at it, every day is a new day and we have to work hard to get better and we have to do that together.”

THE END GAME
Photo by Andy Devlin | Edmonton Oilers

Nelson is now 10-12-3 solo behind the Oilers bench. The players like what they’ve seen from him in his first duty as an NHL head coach, but also what they’ve seen from their group as a whole.

“The record is showing (well) since he’s been here and we’re about .500 and we could be over for sure,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “We’ve had a few games where we’ve worked extremely hard and we’ve come very close but unfortunately we couldn’t get that last goal at the right time. I think all the players like playing for him right now and for sure, I think he’s having fun here too. When you start playing well and you start winning games, it makes things a lot more fun.”

Coaching in the NHL is something Nelson has always wanted to do. This is his opportunity to audition not just for the Oilers, but the entire league. Those thoughts don’t creep into Nelson’s brain though, he’s just taking things day by day.

“It really doesn’t,” Nelson said. “I approach every situation the same way where I live day by day and focused on the task at hand of trying to improve this hockey team. It’s a daily process, but I’m not looking too far in the future about that. All I can do is control what I can control.”

As for his goals for the rest of the season, Nelson just wants the team to continue an upward trajectory.

“I want our team to get better every day. We’ve got to continue to improve. What I want to accomplish with this team is a level of consistency of play that’s going to produce wins for us. We’ve got to play a fast game, I want to have that consistent night in and night out.”

But for Nelson, he has some individual aspirations as well.

“For me personally, I’d like to have a winning record,” he said. “I want to win as many games as I am able to. But I think the most important thing is getting this team to play well on a consistent basis and care about each other. That’s the most important thing and the wins and losses will take care of themselves.”

It’s just a small sample size for the Oilers, so they’ll take their time evaluating Nelson and, like they’ve said, the entire organization. So for Nelson, just like when he’s fishing, he’ll continue to exercise patience and focus on the task at hand.

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