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.
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.
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.
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.
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.