Todd Nelson’s coaching career had been building toward his ultimate goal - to be an NHL head coach. So when Oilers General Manager Craig MacTavish called him just before Christmas, offering him the rare opportunity to achieve that dream, Nelson jumped at the offer.
During Nelson’s formative years as a player destined to become a head coach, he learned from longtime head coach Barry Trotz, now with the Washington Capitals, in the American Hockey League (AHL).
|Courtesy: American Hockey League. |
Playing under Trotz in Portland left a deep impression on Nelson and helped form a foundation of the type of coach he’d eventually evolve into. Nelson says the biggest thing he took from Trotz was how to build a team-first culture. That’s something he set out to do in Edmonton from the moment he took full control of the Oilers bench on an interim basis.
Nelson gathered the players in the Locker Room before a Sunday practice in December, shortly after the coaching transition was made.
“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 acknowledged the team’s place in the standings and gave his honest opinion. “That doesn’t sit well with me,” he told them. But he then explained what the team would start working on, and that’s building a team and a culture. Just as Trotz had showed him as a player, Nelson was trying to show this group.
“I believe 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 toward a common goal.”
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That meeting with the players was important to Nelson. The tone-setting messaging was the first step in building a positive player-coach relationship. The real work then followed in practice, where Nelson says he demands a lot from his players.
Immediately, the practice tempo increased. A few days after Nelson’s closed-door presentation, the team ran through some fast-paced drills, followed by a scrimmage, with the losing team having to skate after.
“We’ve taken more pride in our practices as of late,” Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said after a particularly spirited practice in January. “We know that we can be a little bit sloppy out there at times and I think your work ethic in games starts with practice. There are a lot of things we wanted to work on and that’s one of them.”
Increasing the pace of practice was a start, but more importantly, Nelson wanted to earn the players’ trust.
“I’m standing here before you where trust and respect is a two-way street,” Nelson told the players. “I’m going to have to earn yours and you’re going to have to earn mine.”
He also brought a “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” relationship to the team by listening to the players and accommodating their interests and suggestions on the culture and environment in the dressing room.
He’s allowed for a looser dressing room, but not without asking the players for a hard work ethic and execution on the game plan. This give-and-take approach has worked wonders.
“We’re staying tighter as a team now and it’s more fun to play the game,” Nail Yakupov said. “When it’s fun in the game, it’s better for you and easier for you to play the game with your teammates.”
Nelson’s aptitude for pushing the right buttons with his players and instilling a culture comes from experience gained with the AHL’s Oklahoma City Barons.
Through his first three seasons as a head coach in the AHL, Nelson dealt with all sorts of team makeups. From youthful bluelines to veteran cores and scoring aces to scoring committees, he saw it all. He managed back-to-back Western Conference Final appearances regardless.
|Courtesy: OKC Barons |
Last season, however, was his most difficult test to date. The Barons had 152 transactions last season, including 85 before Christmas. The roster flux and mounting injuries set the team back in the standings. Nelson coached a total of 58 skaters, including an unbelievable nine goaltenders.
On the morning of January 30, 2014, the Barons were a season- low 14th place in the Western Conference. From that low point on, the Barons finished the season 20-7-1-4 on their way to an eighth-seed finish.
It’s common in certain circles to hear that Nelson and his staff “willed” that team to the playoffs. His efforts did not go unrewarded, given his personal growth through the adversity.
“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,” Nelson said.
“I think last year taught me that you’re never out of a fight,” he added. “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.”
Getting a team to come together is something Nelson has been able to do in previous coaching stops. His challenge at the NHL level is to do just that with the Oilers. He has now delivered his message, and is hoping to see the return from his players.
“I want our team to get better every day,” Nelson said of his goals for the remainder of the season. “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. For me personally, I’d like to have a winning record. 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.”
The final message from Nelson to his players? We’re in this together.
“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.”