Training Wheels

Todd Nelson6

On December 15, coming off a 2-0 loss to the New York Rangers, the Edmonton Oilers made the decision to fire head coach Dallas Eakins. It was an inevitable decision, in a lot of ways; coaches just don’t survive teams that post the kind of record that the Oilers did under Eakins’ watch, regardless of whether that record is the fault of the coach or not.

Todd Nelson was promoted from Oklahoma City to replace Eakins on that same day, but for the past two weeks, he’s done his job with the general manager hovering over his shoulder. That finally seems to have come to an end. 

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Craig MacTavish2

In a large organization, it’s impossible for one person to do everything. Many NHL teams used to have one man who was both coach and general manager, but it doesn’t happen anymore because those are both full-time jobs and sticking one man in both roles means neither gets the attention that it really deserves.

So a good general manager has to trust his people.

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He has to trust his amateur scouts to come up with a reasonable draft list because he doesn’t have time to drive from rink-to-rink watching players that his team may or may not draft. He has to trust the input of his professional scouts on other NHL players, because while he’s evaluating his own team he doesn’t have time to sink hours and hours into watching the league’s other 30 clubs. He has to trust his people in the minors to bring his team’s drafted prospects along, because he doesn’t have the ability to go down there and do it himself.

A general manager also needs to trust his coach, because in between evaluating his own team and managing the scouts at the amateur level and the scouts at the professional level and the guys down on the farm and taking trade calls he simply doesn’t have the time to pre-scout the opposition and come up with a game plan and fit the individual players on the roster into that game plan.

It’s plausible that the time behind the bench was useful for MacTavish in evaluating his team, but it could never last. Managing a team is a full-time job. 

Undercutting the Coach

Todd Nelson

On Sunday, Todd Nelson addressed his team prior to practice, and explained to the Oilers’ official website why it was important that he do so.

“It’s big,” he said. “It’s important that I’m very clear with them about who I am as a coach and what my philosophy is so there is no second guessing by the team. I think I have to communicate that consistently.”

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Nelson is right, of course; a coach needs to be clear and direct with his team, and he can’t have his players wondering what he wants. But by the same measure, isn’t it vital that those players not be wondering which of their coaches is really in charge behind the bench?

“Right now, I’m in control,” Nelson said in that same piece. “If [MacTavish is] on the bench, he’s there to assist me.”

Let’s assume that’s 100 percent true. Let’s believe for the sake of argument that MacTavish was the perfect assistant coach, and that Nelson wasn’t even the tiniest bit intimidated by having his boss – a career coach – in a supposedly junior position behind the bench. Even if that’s exactly what was going on, does a player worry more about what the head coach says and thinks or more about what that coach’s boss, who is standing right there, says and thinks?

Having MacTavish on the bench undercuts Nelson’s authority. It’s impossible that it should be otherwise; he’s the most powerful man in the organization and having him standing over the coach’s shoulder conveys more forcefully than any words possibly could that there is a lack of trust there. That the same coach is stuck with an “interim” tag and was previously passed over for an outsider with no NHL experience only reinforces that idea.

Nelson is a solid coach, and he knew the vast majority of the players before he was promoted into the top job. It was always a little ridiculous to stick him with training wheels; it’s good that he’s finally being given a little bit of space. 


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  • Andy7190

    C’mon Jonathan Willis. This article is all assumptions and personal opinion. These are real people not just job titles interacting. Nelson and mact obviously communicate respectfully with each other. He wanted to see who he needs to trade cuz obviously players weren’t following instructions under eakins. Promoting your Ahl coach regardless of his resume mid season is a process. Lou in New Jersey is doing the same thing are you gonna right an article about him too? Assuming mact is there to put pressure on Nelson is wrong. It’s obvious his attention is on the players and is trying to make decisions on this team with all the information. Watching the games Nelson and mact are in constant conversation not Nelson hiding behind mact watching. C’mon JW. Your a good writer. This article seems out of anger to the organization. Mad Fannish. Every move the oilers make is being critized negativily. This one is reaching.

  • ….i don’t understand why the law of averages is not working for the Oilers.
    The idea that probability will influence all occurrences in the long term, that one will neither win nor lose all of the time. For example, If it rains every day this week, by the law of averages we’re bound to get a sunny day soon.
    When will we see sunny days for the Oilers, we renew our hopes every season thinking the coming draft picks will get us trending the in the positive direction.
    If we get both Eichel and Mcdavid I still would not have confidence in this organisation to do anything correctly, it has failed miserably as a team, and is dissolving any fan relation as the current situation stands.
    Fans are united in Lowes firing, and until that happens this city is in no mood to hear about 5 more years of futility……..

  • HardBoiledOil 1.0

    ….i use to play for my school soccer team in England. We never really had a program, it was left up to us to arrange our own team. We had never won a game since we started. It was the middle of the third season and still we had not won a game.
    I heard the team we were about to play could only dress 9 players and had a sub goalie.
    I was imparting to the players how we have a great opportunity to finally win a game and lets try and show something.
    90 minutes later we lost 8-1, i felt embarrassed, and questioned my own commitment to the team. I looked for answers. The history teacher offered to coach our team.
    We started practicing and improving and wining consistently, and finished second in the division.
    I equate this to the Oilers, we lost because we expected to lose, until the coach believed in us and told us ‘ today we are going to win because we are the more prepared and the better team” we won for the first time.
    Winning was a feeling new to us and a few players had a little tear in their eye.
    The coach became our mentor and hope for the future.
    Lets not get to use to losing.

  • camdog

    For whatever reason I feel MacT was behind the bench to completely evaluate who he wants to keep and who he thinks is expendable. I think he wanted to completely test all the players and get a feel who has the right attitude, professionalism, work habits etc. I feel we will know see some surprising moves this coming year.