On Thursday night, the Oilers announced that associate coach Keith Acton and assistant coach Craig Ramsay would not be back with the team. Left unresolved was the future of interim head coach Todd Nelson and assistant coach Rocky Thompson, which may or may not be a tell as to what the group behind the bench will look like next season.
#Oilers coaches Keith Acton and Craig Ramsay have been relieved of their duties and will not be returning for the 2015-16 season.
— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) June 5, 2015
The Dearly Departed
There’s a phrase that conveys the way the Oilers’ fanbase has assessed the team’s assistant coaches over the years. It’s “guilt by association”. Without the ability to peer behind closed doors, to see what area each coach is responsible for and how he handles those duties, it’s tough to get an accurate read on the competence and performance of anyone other than the man in charge of it all, the head coach (and at times, even assessing him can be difficult). Things have not gone well in Edmonton, however, so there’s a tendency to tar everyone with the same brush.
Keith Acton has spent two decades as an assistant or associate coach in the NHL. He worked under Terry Murray in Philadelphia in the early 1990’s, was part of John Muckler’s Rangers staff (working with at various times John Tortorella, Charlie Huddy and Craig MacTavish). He was the right-hand man to Pat Quinn, Paul Maurice and Ron Wilson in Toronto over close to a decade with the Leafs. Before coming to Edmonton he worked for Todd Richards in Columbus.
The point here is that he was a veteran hand and a top lieutenant to some very accomplished head coaches.
Craig Ramsay’s career was even more impressive and featured three head coaching stints. He had a nice run in Philadelphia (43-28-11, with those 11 being ties) but was dismissed after losing in the first round. He had a pretty decent stint with a woeful Atlanta team, too (34-36-12), but was a casualty of a change in ownership. Along the way he’s worked on the staffs of people like Scotty Bowman, Roger Neilson, Jacques Martin, John Tortorella and Claude Julien.
Given Ramsay’s age, he’s likely missed his window to be an NHL head coach, but it’s hard to imagine a more experienced or accomplished associate.
In all likelihood, both of these men are simply victims of the numbers game. Todd McLellan will want to choose his own staff and there will be no shortage of candidates, both quality people he’s met along the way and quality people already in the organization. The head coach has to be able to build a group that works for him, and sometimes in hockey that means departures like this.
Currently in Limbo
Todd Nelson shouldn’t have a shortage of options if he’s looking for a lower-level head coaching job or assistant coaching position. However, he’s proven all he needs to prove at the minor-league level, so it’s questionable whether it makes sense for him to accept a job coaching some other team’s minor-league affiliate. And if he’s going to take an assistant coaching position, one wonders if there’s a better fit than Edmonton, where he’ll have the advantage of working under McLellan and in an organization seemingly on the rise.
The question, of course, is whether McLellan will want him. The two men both have ties to the Detroit organization and both were under the Red Wings’ overall umbrella in 2005-06. For McLellan it was a launching pad, for Nelson a formative experience of which he still speaks fondly. More importantly, no man in the organization has a better appreciation for the young players on the way up and those currently on the roster; Nelson would be an invaluable resource to McLellan, particularly in McLellan’s first year in Alberta.
Rocky Thompson’s fate is also in the balance at the moment. He served as Nelson’s “eye in the sky” down in Oklahoma City before making the jump into the same role in Edmonton. He’s intelligent, enthusiastic and for the Barons at least was a perfect fit in the role. The trouble is that he’s in what might be regarded as an NHL entry-level position, which means that McLellan probably knows dozens of people who might be good fits for the job. From what I saw in Oklahoma City he’d be a good guy to keep around, but if McLellan opts to replace him he might be a nice fit in another capacity in the organization, too.
If both Nelson and Thompson are retained, McLellan’s staff will certainly have a youngish feel. Terry Jones reported in May that 38-year-old Jay Woodcroft would be coming over from San Jose with McLellan; he’d likely assume the No. 3 role on the staff with the 46-year-old Nelson sliding in as McLellan’s No. 2. Thompson is 37 while McLellan himself is only 47; hypothetically, this would give the Oilers a full coaching staff under the age of 50.
Despite the youth, experience wouldn’t be an issue. Thompson has eight years of coaching experience, Woodcroft 10, while Nelson is halfway through his second decade behind the bench and McLellan is early in his third.
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