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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  • Nelson may think he’s in charge, but we’ve seen MacTavish intervene all year long.

    I don’t think MacTavish has had a sudden epiphany that’s he’s actually the problem and should let smarter people do there jobs.

    • Serious Gord

      I agree. Many of The bizarre roster moves this season seem explainable only if they are viewed from the perspective of MacT – not eakins.

      The proof will be how the roster is handled going forward: marincin and lander remaining in the AHL seems implausible if Nelson truly has freedom.

    • Grant

      Lou lamorillo has done the same thing in Jersey,so what’s the difference?nobody is sqwabbling about that.
      No matter what move is made here , it will never satisfy anyone in Edmonton , and if they start winning… What a good move???

        • Andy7190

          Lou Lam is 72, and he’s been a very effective GM in the NHL for a long time.

          But that time is up. New Jersey would be well served hiring from outside and bringing in fresh voices for a new Era there.

          I suspect that is why Lou didn’t designate a new coach. He’s toast at the end of the season and he knows it. Time’s up.

          And hopefully, it is up in Edmonton to, for the Lowe/MacT regime. New blood is sorely needed here.

        • Oilers4ever

          Thats just msm making those comments. We all know how some, not all, of you like to stir the pot just for reading material JW. So unless you have an inside ear in the Devils organization how do you know that’s true?

      • Grant

        This all day. Until the Oil have some on ice success anything they do will be trashed by many. There are only a small minority of people on this site who seem to try to assess Oiler’s move in some rational fashion. Many just automatically trash what ever they do.

      • Serious Gord

        I heard a stat on sportsnetast night that I think ingot right: lamorello has made 15 coaching changes in 17 years.

        It has been said by many that lamorello was a lousy GM for much of his tenure but that he had the greatest goalie in the history of the game to cover up much of his mistakes – that he would be exposed once Brodeur retired.

        • Sal-Sational

          Lousy. Because he only won 3 cups, often with some average caliber teams. Remember the first cup where thy trapped the hell outta Detroit, and ran Peluso out regularly. His teams over-achieved. What you talking bout?

          He could of changed the coach 17 straight years, who cares.

      • Motown Fisher

        You need to highlight the word “IF”, make it 52 font and bold it…

        I’m PRETTY sure we won’t have to worry about your scenario coming to fruition…

  • Athabascajim

    This is a systemic problem the Oilers have had for many years. Their management (largely ex- Oliers) have an arrogant attitude that leads them to believe they are smarter than everyone else and therefore they need to micromanage those they hire to work under them. Good managers know that the road to success is to hire good people and then LET THEM DO THEIR JOBS! Bad managers hire their friends or unqualified people and then hover over them, telling them what to do. Lowe and MacT are terrified to actually hire some one with experience as this person would no doubt outshine them, thereby making it obvious to even Katz that they are the problem. They are managing to hold on to their jobs, not to actually improve the team.