SAN JOSE — If Dallas Eakins was a new-age, analytics driven, triathlete of a coach, then the new guy, Todd Nelson, might as well have walked in the door with a dozen Tim Horton’s donuts under his arm.
“There is some valuable information that we can use,” he said, when asked for his take on analytics. “But you can’t let it get ahold of you.”
He’s in shape — well, the kind of shape that allows for a cold beer and a pizza once in a while — and he’s well spoken, and smart. Nelson just lets you figure that out for yourself.
Like when he was asked how he plans to turn this ship around in Edmonton, where five men have tried and failed over the past six campaigns. “The way I’ve always done it,” he said in a calm quiet voice. “Build a culture that’s conducive to success, and just get everybody to play for one another.”
This guy is so not Dallas, his nickname should be Houston. But who, really, is this Todd Nelson character seen standing behind the bench with Craig MacTavish these days, the latest “interim” coach of the flailing Edmonton Oilers?
He was John Anderson’s assistant coach with the Atlanta Thrashers for two seasons from 2008-10, but got caught up in a house-cleaning and landed up on the Oilers farm in Oklahoma City for the past five seasons. There he watched players come and go who reminded Nelson of himself, a journeyman fourth-round draft pick of Pittsburgh who played three NHL games, and another 836 games in the minors.
“Once you get drafted, you want to get there as quickly as possible,” said the 45-year-old from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. “Just like the players I had down in Oklahoma City. They come to our hockey team and think, ‘I’ll spend a couple of months here, then I’m moving up.’ It’s not reality.”
Eight hundred thirty-six games in the minors. Ride the busses for that long and it’ll beat the ego right out of you. Nelson’s claim to fame is a double-edged sword: “I never got traded,” he proclaims with a wide smile. Then, the punch-line: “Probably nobody else wanted me.”
Nelson was a 22-year-old sitting at the breakfast table in Muskegon one morning in the 1991-92 season when the call came from Pittsburgh. He was being brought up to play a game against the New York Islanders.
“After I got the phone call I couldn’t think straight. I was pacing all over the place, trying to call Mom and Dad. ‘I’ve gotta go, gotta catch a plane. What do I pack…?’ I was confident though. I packed for a couple of weeks.”
And he was back in Muskegon in two days.
Paul Coffey welcomed him to the team, followed closely thereafter with a handshake from Mario Lemieux. He played some, but not many minutes, alongside partner Jim Paek.
“The next day, the guys were saying, ‘You’re going to get sent back. Ulf Samuelsson’s coming back from injury. We don’t play ‘til Wednesday, so why don’t you go hide in one of the bathroom stalls? They won’t be able to catch you as they (leave the rink), and maybe you’ll get one more day’s pay.’
“A whole day’s pay?” he thought, grabbing a magazine. “But they caught me. The naïve rookie.”
Fast forward to today, as Nelson leaves a first-place team in Oklahoma City that leads the AHL in goals, to take over a club that has won once in it’s past 16 games, and ranks 29th in offence league-wide.
It’s impossible to predict how he’ll do, so damaged is the culture in this dressing room. Even the quality leaders they have brought in, players like Matt Hendricks, Andrew Ference and Boyd Gordon, have been overwhelmed and failed to make a dent in a team structure that hasn’t been strong enough for years in Edmonton.
Nelson should command the respect of everyone in this Oilers dressing room, though the biggest issues tend to lie with the young stars who have never made long treks through the minors the way he did. The guys who’ve had too much handed to them too soon.
So we asked young defenceman Brandon Davidson, whose adversity has included beating cancer on his way through the minors, what he thought of his old coach from OKC. Nelson’s first game as an NHL head coach on Tuesday was only Davidson’s fourth NHL game.
“The biggest thing I see in Todd is that he can get players to play for him. Guys just respond to him,” said Davidson. “He demands respect, but he gives a lot of respect back. He has been through the grind. He grinded and forced his way to the NHL, though unfortunately it didn’t last very long (as a player). But you have respect for that guy.
“Especially guys who have worked their way through the minors. You kind of speak the same language.”