I don’t have much faith that even the most accomplished NHL coach – pick a name, like Mike Babcock, Ken Hitchcock or Darryl Sutter – could turn the Edmonton Oilers into winners the way the team is put together now, but I do like what I’ve seen from Todd Nelson.
Given what Nelson has to work with, more accurately what he doesn’t have to work with, my sense through his first 10 games behind Edmonton’s bench unaccompanied by GM Craig MacTavish is that he’s a significant upgrade on the departed Dallas Eakins.
That’s a mostly gut-feel assessment based on observation, intuition and personal preference – Nelson has struck me as a pretty smart guy without trying to come off that way since his days in Oklahoma City – but my read is he’s done a bang-up job in what is basically an audition to have the interim label removed from in front of his title.
I don’t know if what we’ve seen so far, a 4-4-2 record, will be enough to accomplish that heading into next season given that there are and will be more established names available, but he’s giving himself a chance. So far, he’s at least prompting the question – if MacTavish actually puts together the right players, might Nelson be the right coach to lead this team out of the nine-year skein of futility we’ve witnessed?
WHAT I LIKE ABOUT YOU
Again, Nelson isn’t going to turn this team on a dime because coaching, good or bad, doesn’t have nearly as much impact as having the right mix of players who are talented, accomplished and experienced, but he’s caught my eye as being a refreshing change-up from the dour Eakins.
Most recently, it was Nelson’s decision to use Nail Yakupov in the shootout against the Florida Panthers. It was, ridiculously, Yakupov’s first shootout attempt in 157 NHL games. Yakupov answered the call by scoring the only and deciding goal in a 3-2 win.
That opportunity came in a game in which Yakupov made a lazy clearing attempt that was so bad goaltender Viktor Fasth skated out of the net to get in his ear. It’s an opportunity I’d bet the farm, that never would have come under Eakins after a mistake like that. Nelson gave the kid the tap. Instead of leaving the rink feeling lousy about himself in a season where he’s already endured plenty of that, Yakupov had something to hang his hat on.
“I don’t know why, but coach gave me my first shootout (chance) and I nailed it. It feels pretty good,” Yakupov said. “I’m like, ‘Where? Shootout? I’m going first?’ He (says), ‘Yes,’ so I jumped and went in there and scored.”
With just 5-6-11 in the 46 games he’s played, Yakupov is going to need a helluva lot more than a shootout winner in a half-empty rink in Florida to turn his season and his career around, but a vote of confidence like that from the coach can go a long way.
With seven goals in his last seven games, Benoit Pouliot has easily been the best Oiler forward of late. Pouliot has been on a roll that might not have even started had the boneheaded spearing penalty that cost the Oilers a game against the Detroit Red Wings been handled differently.
I was one of those people who believed Nelson had to make a stand and assert himself as coach when Pouliot, who has a history of taking penalties in the offensive zone, took a double-minor for probing Jonathan Ericsson’s bag with his blade behind the Detroit net in a 4-2 loss to the Red Wings.
Nelson read the situation and resisted the urge to put Pouliot in the press box for a game. It turns out Pouliot, who is in the first year of a five-year deal with the Oilers, didn’t need his nosed rubbed in the mistake. “I think when that happened he felt pretty bad about it,” Nelson said. “But he’s been playing really solid for us.”
Call it a cliché, but my sense, given what we’ve seen (and how he conducted himself in OKC) is Nelson is the kind of coach whose players want to play for him – the proverbial “player’s coach.” He could’ve hammered Yakupov further into the ground, but he didn’t. Nelson could have made an example of Pouliot, but he instead went the other way. There’s currency in that.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Nelson, obviously, doesn’t have all the answers. He can’t stop fumbling the puck for Nikita Nikitin, make the right clearing attempt for Justin Schultz, stop pucks for Fasth or Ben Scrivens, address the many flaws in the roster or snap his fingers and instantly make the stench of defeat that’s set in over nine seasons disappear.
There is something, however, to be said for the ability to read the players he has and for the intuition it takes to understand that there are no hard-and-fast rules about how to handle every player in every situation. There’s a time to be the good cop and support the player and to be the bad cop and kick some ass. It’s a difficult balance, but I know it when I see it. Nelson has it.
That ability in itself won’t turn things around, but having a feel for the vibe in the room and the players in it is a start and something obviously lacking under Eakins, who ran the gamut between seeming hopelessly disengaged and outwardly exasperated behind the bench.
While I fully understand there’s a very long way to go, what we’ve seen so far from Nelson is a small step. From where I sit, it’s a welcome and overdue step worth noting.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.