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Nelson Ready for NHL

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers
Photo by Getty Images.

Todd Nelson wants his chance.

Nelson, like all of the young players he mentors and develops in Oklahoma City, is using a stint in the American Hockey League to help achieve his dreams of reaching the NHL.

“I definitely want to be in the National Hockey League,” Nelson said. “I think I have the confidence within myself to know I could do the job up there, just based on other coaches that have come from the American Hockey League and have had success up top. I have confidence within myself.”

There’s no doubt that Todd Nelson has proven he’s a winner.

Nelson was selected in the fourth round (79th overall) of the 1989 NHL Entry Draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins and played 12 seasons of professional hockey. He won a Calder Cup with the Portland Pirates in 1994 and he’d later be inducted into the franchise’s Hall of Fame in 2007.

He became the head coach of Muskegon in the UHL, where he won two championships before losing in the second round of his third season. Nelson also won the 2008 Calder Cup as an assistant coach with the Chicago Wolves.

Since becoming the head coach of the Oilers primary affiliate, Nelson has reached the playoffs each of his first three seasons and has posted 40 or more wins in each of those years. The Barons have reached the Calder Cup Conference Finals in both of the previous two seasons.

This season however, may prove to be the biggest season for Nelson yet. The adversity he’s faced in dealing with youth, inexperience, injuries and call ups has proven to be a valuable tool in his development as a coach.

“I think this year has made me a better coach,” he said. “With all of the transactions that we’ve had, especially early on, it was very difficult for us. You’re trying to find chemistry within the lineup and when you have a lot of movement, that’s difficult. Also, I think what people maybe don’t understand is that we’ve had maybe two-thirds of our team turned over from last year. We have a lot of new people come to our team, they had to learn our new system and I think overtime, the guys have gotten it and we’ve gotten total buy-in from everyone on the team.

Photo by OKC Barons/Steven Christy.

“I think that was the toughest thing, just trying to get everyone going in the right direction. It was very difficult, but right now we’re seeing our team play well and come together. Right now, as a coaching staff, we have them on ‘auto pilot’. The guys know exactly what they have to do out there, they know they have to play the right way. It’s taken us some time to get there but right now, all I have to do is make sure I have the right guys out there and just swing the gates.”

By taking the Barons from almost out of the conversation to a position where they can now legitimately compete for a playoff spot, Nelson has drawn the attention and praise from the big club.

“I think Todd’s gotten much more comfortable and confident in his role down there and much more comfortable and confident in his ability as a coach,” Oilers General Manager Craig MacTavish said. “That takes time. We all get into coaching, I was no exception. You’re not sure what type of job you’re doing but I think over time you start to become, when you’ve had the successes Todd has had, you become very confident in your ability to coach and I really believe that Todd has that confidence in his ability. Every year, he has that team poised and playing very well at this time of year. We got behind in the race, all due to circumstance really beyond Todd’s control but now he’s got the team playing well and now they’re challenging for a playoff position again.”

Todd Nelson and his staff’s successes in development are beginning to show in earnest. Players like Anton Lander, Mark Arcobello, Martin Marincin, Justin Schultz, Tyler Pitlick and Oscar Klefbom have shown improvement as young players that can be traced back to their time in OKC under Nelson’s tutelage.

“Todd and the coaching staff down there, with Gerry Fleming and Rocky Thompson, have done an unbelievable job of keeping the players on task and developing our players,” MacTavish said.

Photo provided by Oilers TV.

This season, the Barons are churning out NHL-ready prospects which has been good for a club that’s seen a fair share of turnover and has a need for depth. The players coming up are more mature and more prepared for the next step in their careers and Nelson and his staff deserve a lot of the credit.

“I think you characterized it very well,” MacTavish said. “The prospects in our organization are reaching a more mature stage down there so their roles are expanding because of that. We now have more guys ready to come up here and help us or, at the very least, give us a real good look at what they can do because they’ve cleared the American Hockey League hurdle.”

Nelson and his coaching staff are a proud bunch. They have instilled a winning culture in Oklahoma City in and their adversity this season has been a challenge. Nelson is also in a pursuit of completing a personal quest to secure a Calder Cup as a head coach, having done so as a player and assistant already.

“Everybody wants to win a championship,” he said. “I’ve won two Calder Cups, I’ve done it as a player and an assistant coach and I think the one last thing I want to check off my box in the American League is to win a Calder Cup as a head coach. With that being said, I’ve got a responsibility of developing players for the big club. With that, it doesn’t mean I can’t teach this group how to win games and how to win a championship. I think that everyone who’s ever won a championship understands how much they grew through the journey to get there and once you are a champion, you’re a champion for life.

“There’s nothing more I would like than to share that with a group of guys in this dressing room. As long as I’m here, I’m here to develop players and win hockey games. If we can do both, then that’d be excellent. I’ve just felt that for the last couple of years, we’ve had teams that were strong enough to win a cup, but it didn’t happen. Especially last year, we were one game away from going to the Calder Cup Finals and I think we would have fared well in the final. Our work isn’t done here yet. Our goal is to get this team in the playoffs and hopefully have a long run where this team can grow as individuals. That’s the goal right now and hopefully that happens.”

Photo by OKC Barons/Steven Christy.

MacTavish, as a former AHL head coach himself, sees how a Calder Cup with the Barons would help bolster Nelson’s resume. However, with the way the AHL operates, there are other means of measuring the success of coaches.

“You get a lot of attention,” MacTavish said about winning a Calder Cup. “You get a lot of positive attention for winning championships, there’s no doubt about that. It turns everybody’s heads. When you’re coaching in the American Hockey League, the circumstances in a lot of ways are beyond your control. Sometimes your success as a team is more directly related to the quality of prospects that the parent team sends your way.”

As a former player and one who went through the AHL in his career, Nelson has shown the ability to connect with the players down on the farm and he’s earned their respect as a coach. The players want to play for him and they buy in to his coaching style.

Regardless of the prospects, Todd has done a very good job,” MacTavish said. “The last couple of years we’ve had very good American Hockey League players and this year we’ve got a pretty good collection of prospects down there. It’s a tribute to Todd that he’s able to communicate and connect well with both those types of players. He connects extremely well with the players and the players want to play for him and I think he walks the balance of bringing the accountability that you need. It’s obvious when you watch the team play and having the players have a respect for you that they want to play and do well for you and Todd does a very good job with that.”

It’s clear in talking with MacTavish that there is support for Nelson within the Oilers organization. It’s becoming closer to a matter of ‘when’ and now no longer a matter of ‘if’ Nelson gets the call with an NHL franchise.

It would and will be a loss to the Oilers if Nelson were to leave to advance his career. For four seasons now, Nelson has provided stability in the Oilers development tree and that’s invaluable for a franchise stocked with young talent needing to be groomed. However, the time is approaching when Nelson may successfully utilize the AHL as the stepping stone it is, on his path to the NHL.

“It’s so good to have the stability of the coaching staff that’s been down there,” MacTavish said. “The coaches are a lot like the players. They all are trying to get to the next level. From an organizational standpoint, it’s really good from our perspective to have the same coaches down there year in and year out. Although, Todd probably wouldn’t welcome that comment. He, like the players, is trying to garnish some attention down there and trying to let his work speak for itself and get an opportunity to coach in the NHL.”

It’s becoming more clear that Nelson is ready for that next step in his career and MacTavish agrees.

“I think he is ready for that opportunity. Those opportunities are rare but I really think that the people that are around the American Hockey League are starting to recognize what a terrific coach Todd is but those opportunities are tough. It’s a fine line between being happy in the job you’re in and being overly ambitious and I think Todd walks that line very well.”

It’s a waiting game for Nelson but the numbers don’t lie and the reviews are positive; his time is coming.

“I have one more year left in my contract next year,” Nelson said. “I have an NHL ‘out clause’ if somebody does come calling but I’ve just got to keep doing good work here and hopefully somebody will take notice. If nothing materializes after next season, I’m going to have to look at other avenues to try to enhance my coaching career. Right now, I’m just taking it day-by-day and we’ll have to see if anybody comes calling. I can’t force anybody in the National Hockey League’s hand to hire me but I’m trying to do the best job I can and hopefully, someone notices.”

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