Todd Nelson has been waiting for an opportunity to coach in the NHL for years. That was always his goal. So when Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish called him yesterday and offered him the rare opportunity to achieve that dream, Nelson couldn’t say no.
The Oilers game plan moving forward is to have MacTavish assume head coaching responsibilities temporarily before transitioning the team to Nelson on an interim basis. Nelson will get the rest of the season to show what he can do at the NHL level.
“I understand the challenges here, but I’m really grateful for the opportunity. I’m just going to come here, work hard and try to improve the hockey club,” Nelson said.
The 45-year-old Nelson has been in Oklahoma City since 2010 as the head coach of the Oilers American Hockey League affiliate. He managed to coach the Barons to a record of 176-111-12-34 in 333 games at the helm. His most successful season came in 2011-12 when he directed the Barons to a first place finish in the Western Conference with a record of 45-22-4-5. He made the Western Conference Final two years in a row and has never missed the playoffs in OKC.
“For Todd Nelson, his teams always play for him,” MacTavish said. “Having seen his teams play over the years, they’re very well organized and they play a passionate brand of hockey and that’s undeniable.”
Nelson was an assistant coach with the Atlanta Thrashers from 2008-2010, but outside of that he is an unknown factor behind the bench in the NHL. The rest of this season will be Nelson’s chance to truly bring his brand of hockey to an NHL club.
“What is still questioned is whether he can bring that same level of buy-in to an NHL group as you can to an American Hockey League group. That’s going to be the litmus test for him for sure on whether he has success in his tenure as he takes over here,” MacTavish said.
Luckily for Nelson, his first opportunity comes with a club and a group of players he’s very familiar with.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Nelson said. “There’s nowhere to go but up. It would be much more difficult if maybe I went to an organization that I didn’t know but I know a lot of the players and have worked in the organization for 4+ years now so I feel quite comfortable.”
Photo by Steven Christy/OKC Barons
His former and now current players all support him, knowing he has an ability to get the most out of a situation.
“He’s a really good coach,” said Oilers centre Mark Arcobello, who has known Nelson since his first year in 2010. “He’s done a lot with the guys down in Oklahoma over the years so it’s nice to see him up here. What I do know is that guys like playing for him, they’re going to be really energetic for him… It’s going to be good and I think he’s going to have success.”
Arcobello, under Nelson’s guidance, has moved up the ranks from the ECHL to becoming a very productive AHL forward and now full-time NHL player for the Oilers.
Nelson worked with Oilers defenceman Justin Schultz during the 2012 NHL lockout and was able to get elite offensive production out of the young player. Schultz finished those 34 games in OKC with 48 points (18-30-48) and was named the winner of the Eddie Shore Award as the league’s outstanding defenceman that season.
Oilers winger Jordan Eberle also played 34 games for Nelson during the lockout and knows exactly what kind of coach he is.
“Todd is a very smart guy,” Eberle said. “I know he watches all our games in OKC and having him in training camp and having him in the American League for half a season, he knows how to get the most out of players. He’s smart, he’s a very friendly guy off the ice and knows when to get on guys too.”
That knowledge of when to be friend or critic has helped Nelson in his young coaching career.
“I’ve been told that I’m honest and hold people accountable,” Nelson said. “I guess players would say that I’m a good communicator and just a fair coach that wants to get the most out of their players.”
Nelson also has been able to put together a successful power play in the AHL, which is something the Oilers are hoping he can help with at the NHL level as well. Edmonton is producing at just a 12.9% clip, while Nelson’s teams in OKC have been near the top of the league the last three seasons.
The Prince Albert, Saskatchewan native was drafted in the fourth round, 79th overall, by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft. He played 12 seasons in the pros, lacing up for 306 career AHL games with the Portland Pirates, Hershey Bears, Rochester Americans and Grand Rapids Griffins. He won a Calder Cup in 1994 with Portland and was inducted into their hall of fame in 2007.
He has coached since 2001-02, winning two championships with the UHL’s Muskegon Fury before becoming an assistant with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves and the NHL’s Thrashers on his path to the Oilers organization.
This opportunity however is unlike any he’s had yet in his career and Nelson is excited for what lies ahead.
“I’m going to do it the way I’ve always had,” Nelson said. “I want to build a culture conducive to success and getting everybody to play for one another.”