Todd Nelson’s Options

Todd Nelson

We’ve talked at length on this site about the possibility of Oklahoma City Barons coach Todd Nelson getting a promotion to the Edmonton Oilers’ coaching staff. What we haven’t spent much time considering is what might happen if he isn’t moved up to Edmonton.

As I see it, there’s a pretty good chance that nothing happens.

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30 Thoughts

Elliotte Friedman is a phenomenal journalist, one of the very best reporters covering the NHL, and in his latest edition of 30 Thoughts he spent a lot of time on the various coaching vacancies around the league. After going through the widely-rumoured names (Kevin Dineen, Ulf Samuelsson, Ed Olczyk) for the head coaching job in Carolina and before commenting on Detroit’s reluctance to expose Jeff Blashill, their AHL coach, Friedman considers less-heralded candidates:

Did ask around for a couple of “different” coaching possibilities, guys who don’t get mentioned much. Teams with current openings wouldn’t answer, but there were a few suggestions. Willie Desjardins, who coached at AHL Texas, was a multiple mention. Also included: Tampa associate coach Rick Bowness, with five NHL lead jobs on his resume. And, Anaheim’s Bob Woods, named because he’s played a big role in developing some of the Ducks’ impressive young defencemen… The final name was team-specific to Vancouver: Mike Johnston of WHL Portland. Linden made it clear the GM should hire the coach, but the two have a history.

It’s pretty hard to argue with any of those. Desjardings won two championships in the WHL, spent time as an associate coach in Dallas, and has done great things with the Texas Stars in two seasons there. Bowness debuted as an NHL coach in 1984-95 (he’s literally coached in the majors for longer than I’ve been alive) and is highly regarded. Bob Woods worked his way up from being an ECHL assistant coach, won an AHL championship in 2009 and has been a top lieutenant of the excellent Bruce Boudreau since. Johnson had a long run as first an assistant and then an associate coach under Marc Crawford in Vancouver and Los Angeles before moving to the WHL, where his Portland Winterhawks have been a dominant club.

A Competitive Field

The point here is that head coaches are a little bit like goalies – there are many more legitimate candidates for jobs then there are jobs for candidates.

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Many teams are only going to be interested in coaches with prior NHL experience. That cuts out a massive list of candidates, but still leaves a crowded field. Claude Noel, Kevin Dineen, Kirk Muller and Adam Oates are recent additions to a group that includes Barry Trotz, Guy Boucher, Jacques Martin, John Stevens, Tom Renney, Ron Wilson, Andy Murray, Brent Sutter, Guy Carbonneau, Terry Murray and Marc Crawford. Even that represents just the tip of the iceberg – if I were being thorough here I could put together a list three or four times as long.

For teams willing to add a coach without significant NHL experience, the options increase exponentially. The AHL is the obvious place to look, but any coach with an impressive track record in the WHL or OHL or QMJHL is going to get consideration, too. It’s rare to see a European coach installed in a senior position, but many top North American-trained coaches now ply their trade overseas. There isn’t any need to limit the scope of the search to head coaches, either; there are plenty of excellent associate and assistant coaches in the NHL who deserve consideration.

Take, for example, a guy who doesn’t get mentioned a lot as a head coaching candidate: Gerard Gallant. Gallant has an NHL history; he started as an assistant coach under (the excellent) Dave King before taking the top job with Doug MacLean’s doomed Columbus Blue Jackets. He followed that up with a stint as an assistant coach with the Islanders (under Ted Nolan) before heading back to the junior ranks, where he won two QMJHL championships in three seasons as a head coach. He’s now in his second year as an assistant coach with Montreal.

Gallant has a lot going for him – an NHL assistant under very good coaches, NHL head coaching experience, a brilliant run as a junior coach – and yet he’s almost never mentioned as a head coaching candidate.

Circling Back

Todd Nelson3

I happen to think Todd Nelson is an exceptional coach. He’s done a lot of good things in Oklahoma, both from a development standpoint and from a winning games perspective. Other changes happened simultaneously, but it’s well worth remembering that the Oilers’ farm club had been a disaster for years prior to his arrival.

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But he has a lot working against him, too.

For one, Nelson’s a substance-over-style coach in a league that puts a lot of value on the ‘sexy’ hire. I’ve had a chance to talk with the coach at length and over a significant period of time, to talk with his players on and off the record, and to watch him in practice and in games – he has a simple and direct style that works wonderfully to impart the necessary lessons to his players but that doesn’t stand out. He just doesn’t ‘pop’ as a candidate the way a guy like Dallas Eakins or Ralph Krueger – both wonderfully gifted at turning a phrase – even if he’s as good as anyone at getting the message through to his players.

Another factor is the lack of media coverage in OKC. Nobody from an independent outlet travels with the team on the road, and this season there were only two reporters there for all the home games – veteran Mike Baldwin, who covers a laundry list of sports for The Oklahoman and doesn’t often get a chance to talk about the NHL, and me. The big national guys didn’t come around; even when notable things (like Ilya Bryzgalov returning to hockey) happened most of their work was done by telephone. Coaching the Barons just doesn’t bring the same level of exposure that coaching a team somewhere on the East Coast does.

In a field as highly competitive as NHL head coaching, it can take a long time to get noticed. Bruce Boudreau coached an IHL (AAA hockey, just like the AHL) team to a finals appearance in 1994 and was named the coach of the year in that league; at that point he was still two championships and more than a decade away from getting his first job in the NHL. He’s been out of work for something like two games since getting hired early in 2007-08; if he were fired today he’d likely have another job within a week.

The point here, which I understand has been a long time coming, is that even with his excellent record Nelson is going to be in tough for a head coaching job (although it’s possible that somebody like Barry Trotz – to pick someone who will likely be hiring soon and with whom Nelson has history – could be interested in bringing him on as an assistant). I think the Oilers should offer him an assistant coaching position because he’s a great coach and a great fit for the job, and if they do I think he should take it because he’s in a brutally competitive line of work.


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      • Jordan McNugent-Hallkins

        Agreed. In fact it actually provides a good argument for keeping him in junior. In the article he states he has to work on the details of his defensive game, and the writer himself says that Nurse has a tendency to freewheel for the big hit. Which is fine for Subban, who is a Norris defenseman, but an 18 year old rookie is not going to have as long of a leash.

        That being said, Nurse is the prospect I’m most excited about. If the worst case scenario plays out and we lose the kids to free agency before we make some noise in the playoffs, I think Nurse is going to be the centerpiece they re-re-re-re-rebuild around, along with whoever they take this draft.

  • Sevenseven

    I think Nelson deserves a shot soon at the NHL level. Having said that he should play under an experienced head coach to learn the ropes. Likewise that we need to bring in an associate coach who is a league veteran and can take some of the pressure off of Eakins.

    • Strange Tamer

      I think it is horrible for a team to be around numerous firings of coaches and GM’s. On the the other hand Oilers have made some bad choices for coaches. I know it is the last thing the Oilers want to do but you do not want to make the wrong mistake. Eakins is wrong for the Oilers.

      I agree suck it up and hire Trotz and Nelson. Fire Eakins.

  • It’s my belief that for a team to be successful on and off the ice they need to be more effective then other teams at assessing talent. This needs to be true in terms of on ice talent as well as the managerial types. There is no excuse for a team not to be ahead of the curve in this regard when it comes to the talent they already possess within their system. Oilers need to be ahead of the curve with this guy and move his talent on up the ladder. Enough with the Bucky experiment already, Nelson has shown he has the chops for at least an Asst position.

  • Strange Tamer

    Willie Desjardins ? Really ? He was out coached at the world juniors in 2010 and his team under achieved despite having 9 returnees from the 2009 championship team. I still remember the bewildered look on his face when the Americans stormed back and he failed to switch goalies when the game started to crumble and Canada’s string of 6 straight was over.

    I would hope Nelson would be held in higher regard then that clown with all the good work he has done in OKC. Then again Steve Sprott got a pro coaching job after the debacle that he put on in the WJC, so I guess anything is possible.

  • Strange Tamer

    I think it is near impossible for an assistant coach to move to head coach of same team, you have to move from good guy that has players ear to tough guy who has to be the bad guy.

    For that reason leave him in okc, with a firm understanding that in the next two years if any thing changes with regards to Elkins he is next in line

  • vetinari

    Like having the right ‘mix’ of players, wouldn’t it be good to have a mix of personalities on the coaching staff? How did the Barons special teams perform this year? Would he help with that problem?

  • Do what Weight did?

    I hope you’re right, about Nelson not getting snatched up by another NHL squad. I think that would be a huge loss for the Oil, and would set us back at least a couple of years.

    That being said, I think a promotion to an NHL associate coaching position would be a mistake. Simply put, I think he has a bigger positive impact coaching in the minors. Or, at the very least, we can be confident he is a very good fit as head coach for the Barons. We don’t know what kind of impact he would have with the Oilers. To me, the potential upside of moving him up is not enough, right now, to justify losing him as coach of the Barons.

    So, along those lines, I think it’s vital that the Oilers (would it be MacT, KLowe, Katz or someone else?) make sure this employee knows and feels he is valued by the organization. If a ‘promotion’ isn’t the right thing to do, will some combination of positive feedback, accolades, and money keep him a happy soldier in Oilers organization?


      I agree completely with the logic to keep Nelson in OKC.

      However, we’re also talking about a team that rushes it’s best young assets into the majors out of necessity. All of our top picks never had the benefit of developing under Nelson.

      Of course, the top line and Schultz did for a short stint during the lockout, and one could argue they were most impactful as a unit while playing in OKC, but it’s not helping their current NHL careers.

      With such a young and developing core on our NHL squad, it may actually be to our benefit to have a guy like Nelson along for the ride. Hall, Eberle, Nuge, Yak, Klefbom, Marincin.. and likely Nurse and our 3rd pick overall will suit up for the Oilers next season. Even guys like Pitlick, Khaira, Simpson or now Yakimov could also see some time in limited roles. That’s a lot of youth.

      Personally, I feel better about a guy like Nelson influencing their careers, rather than a guy like Bucky strutting around the room, chewing his gum too loud and talking about how great the team “used” to be.

  • Jordan McNugent-Hallkins

    I really think Nelson could be a very good upgrade over Acton. Nelson has made a winner pretty much everywhere he coached. 2 championships in 3 seasons with Muskegon Fury.3 straight 40 win seasons in OKC with a 36 win season this year with OKC(with a defensive core mainly onsisted of 19-21 yr and with a few 20,21 yr olds on forward). I just hope that he isn’t like Dallas Eakins. Marlies took 3rd in the whole AHL without Eakins.

  • Jordan McNugent-Hallkins

    If I were Todd Nelson I would distance myself from the stench of the Oilers ownership and management. Coming up through the Oiler organization is like growing up in a whorehouse. Nelson should not run from Oil country he should take the Space Shuttle.

    He has other viable choices. You only have one chance to wreck your reputation.

    • HardBoiledOil 1.0

      and what boils my blood, and i’m sure a lot of other fans too, is the fact that the Habs picked 3rd overall in 2012 and had a 100 point season and are in the 2nd round giving the Bruins all they can handle, and the Avs pick 1st overall last year and had a 52 win, 112!! point season. are those 2 teams nucleus’s that much better than the Oilers that they can both put up 100 point seasons so quickly and the Oilers STILL suck?

      • HardBoiledOil 1.0

        In a word, yes. There is no comparison between the Habs and the Oilers depth wise and they have Price. As for the Avs, they have a very strong and well balanced core and a goalie who had an outstanding year.

        So, to repeat myself, their respective cores are truly that much better than the Oilers.

      • HardBoiledOil 1.0

        You know what boils my blood, when fail to look beyond their hand when whining about the oilers. Like someone else already point out the Habs core of players consisted of Subban, Price, Paciorety (their 2007 draft on a side not was one of the best in the last 10 years) when they added Galchenyuk. How about you also look at the actually have had 4 top 3 pick on their roster, the difference they were all spaced out, but yeah I guess those facts are not really important.

        • Tikkanese

          Whoa, take it easy. I think his point was that these teams are actually moving in the right direction with their high draft picks whereas Edmonton continues to languish in the basement of the league with seemingly no hope of improvement, which is extremely frustrating for fans. The difference is management and player development. Colorado and Montreal understand what they are doing and Edmonton doesn’t so the core’s not really the issue. That said, I’d trade Edmonton’s core away for Montreal or Colorado’s core any day.

      • Thumby

        The answer is yes they are. Both of those teams had rosters that included veterans and mid-20s experienced players who could positively impact games. Edmonton did not.

  • HardBoiledOil 1.0

    Unless the job comes with a massive raise which I highly doubt, I just can’t see why Nelson would be interested in joining Eakins’ staff. It makes no sense.

  • HardBoiledOil 1.0

    On almost any other team, it would be a slam dunk that Nelson would be promoted somehow. On the Edmonton Oilers, though, that won’t be the case. Nelson can actually coach. His guys (Klefbom and Marincin) were better than most of the D who were in Edmontonthroughout the season. At the very least, you’d think he’d be considered as a guy who could take over the defense from Steve Smith, who seems completely clueless on the bench. But cronyism must continue and we’ll have Buchberger and Smith back, two guys who must be incredible assistant coaches to have made it through 4 head coaches. If you look at it objectively, who would actually hire Smith, Buchberger, Acton, MacTavish, Lowe, Howson and now Eakins on any other team? I’d venture to guess nobody.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    I’m sure Todd can see the writing on the wall here. He knows he’s not of that FOK ilk.

    He’s established himself as a credible AHL coach now, and if he wants to take the next step to the NHL, he best do it in an organization with much stronger ownership. If not, he’ll surely die of old age in that OKC dressing room.

    • Reg Dunlop

      What does FOK mean? Pardon my density but I’m guessing, maybe, Friend Of Kevin? Or maybe Fawn Over Kevin?

      As for the pit boss, he is at the back of a long line of coaches looking for NHL employment. He will continue to run the show in OKC and be happy he isn’t working at the Baccarat casino.

  • Mike Krushelnyski

    Why should our mismanagement of assets be restricted to players only? My guess is Nelson doesn’t get a sniff with the Oilers and he moves on to another organization in a couple years.

  • ubermiguel

    A good organization will do whatever is can to keep a quality hockey man like Nelson on the payroll. I wonder what Nelson wants? Maybe he see some unfinished work in OKC. Maybe he wants a chance to be an NHL assistant. Maybe he got his eye on an AHL GM job. I don’t know, but I sure hope POHO knows…although I doubt it.

  • Tikkanese

    “The point here is that head coaches are a little bit like goalies – there are many more legitimate candidates for jobs then there are jobs for candidates. ”

    Then why are we stuck with Dallas Eakins?

  • Tikkanese

    I hope he stays down there for a little while. The Oilers at the NHL level have few veterans to help mentor, and a coaching staff that seems to kill progress and development. Todd Nelson is our best chance of developing all the young talent we are acquiring.


    Everyone who knows of the Oilers and hockey….fully know that Eakins will be the coach again next season….no matter the complaintys and whining of many many fans everywhere.

    IMO, one major good thing for the Oilers was that Eakins was NOT like John Tortella of the Canucks…lol.

    That being said, I wish to know why the Oilers do not nor did not hire a good develpomental strategist coach for the team…such as a John Muckler type guy.

    Nelson, with a promotion to asst coach, could be that guy, especially with the the way he develpoed many of the kids now coming up.

    Eakins played 5/6/7 defence, Acton was a good checking third/fourth line center, Bucky was a pugilist PK winger/player on the 3rd/4th line and… Smith was a 4/5/6/ type defenceman as well.

    IMO, both defencemen background coaches did not improve the defence, Actron has not helped the centers or checkers that much and who knows what Bucky’s responsibilities are because I only hear he is great to talk to the players so far.

    This team needs not only better defence and checking (2 way play) but the need to let the offense type kids explode consistently is very necessary right now. Where is the offence strategy, especially with the PP??

    I believe Bucky should be now off the coaching staff and moved to another Oiler department…and not down to the farm team…or let go entirely….while Nelson or another top rated strategist coach be brought in….to assist Eakins better. Smith, as well, has not shown to me or other fans that he is a good enough defence minded coach… who is improving the team’s back-end… such as Charlie Huddy has become.

    The Oiler let go some very good coaches in the past (such as Claude Julien) and the time to let the ones here actually improving the system should be allowed to shine now.

    I understand that talent/skills of players are a big part of success and failure as well but the kids that are here have that (RNH, Hall, Ebs, Yak, Schultz, Petry, Marancin)…and still some more kids are up and coming (Lander, Pitlick, Gernat, Simpson, Musil, Yakimov, Khaira, Marco Roy, Broisoitt, etc) … so stop the coaching failures…and then get even more talent/skilled plaYers as well.

    Nelson very much deserves a promo.

  • Oiler63

    Those are all the reasons why he should have been given the opportunity under Kruger last year in Edmonton, He would be the leading candidate to be the guy in charge now; … but alas we are stuck with the “flashy” yet uberly useless Dallas Eakins. [sigh]

  • Oiler63

    Nelson is a coach that we could definitely use at the NHL level.

    He is not as articulate as Eakins we know that much………..but who really cares. Scotty Bowman was never articulate and we all know how effective he was.

    Eakins has proven that “Fluff” does not translate…..he will get 20 games next year and I’m convinced his fate will be sealed prior to that.

  • Oiler63

    Keep him in OKC until Eakins is fired in January and then bring him in as interim head coach. He said that he wants to be a head coach and not an assitant as hes has been an assitant already in the nhl. Eakins isn’t going to make the full season here next year.