What Todd Nelson did this season with Oklahoma City was akin to what Mike Babcock did for the Detroit Red Wings. Nelson was able to lift a team suffering from a constantly rotating lineup, and helped them overcome growing pains and injuries, to ultimately perform up to or above their potential. I have a lot of respect for what Nelson accomplished. But that does not mean that he is a good option for the Oilers bench.
There is a lot of noise in Edmonton right now about Nelson, and his perceived value to the Oilers NHL coaching staff. I get it. You have someone in your organization succeeding, where and when success is a relatively rare thing. Tantalizing.
It was obvious, in 2013-14, that Dallas Eakins was in over his head. And by that, I don’t mean that Eakins isn’t a good coach. In fact, I think he is, and up until this season, his resume backed that assertion up. But clearly that bench lacked the experience of a “real” NHL coach. They were missing a man with at least 200+ games as an NHL Head Coach. Let’s call him Larry Robinson.
Understand: Coaching in the NHL versus the AHL is very different. You are dealing with high performers; players wired much differently that the lunch-bucket variety common in the AHL. Young players describe how much faster the NHL is when they arrive? Well, I’m here to tell you that it is equally challenging for coaches, if not more so.
For one thing, the competition is much better. You are matching wits with some of the best coaches in the world. And with the parity we see in the NHL today, a smart match-up here, a wise line change there, or a coach knowing just when to push which button on which player can be the single difference between winning…and losing.
NHL coaches also need to be superior people managers. When you jump from the AHL (a VERY good league) to the NHL, you go from managing Clydesdales to racehorses. Sure, they’re both horses, but you train them, condition them and pace them in entirely different ways. NHL players (even on the Oilers) are not the most impressionable players in your organization.
When you read the above two paragraphs, surely you can see how Dallas Eakins was so challenged, this past season. And this was from a guy that not only played 882 professional games; he coached (successfully) at the AHL level for 4 years. And he was the Assistant Coach of the Leafs for 3 more. Eakins did not lack experience.
Yet, just as most young players have growing pains while making “the jump”, so did he. Todd Nelson has an admirable coaching record, but has played fewer NHL games, and has coached fewer professional games than Eakins.
So if we agree Eakins lacked an adequate lieutenant on the bench, then how exactly is Nelson the answer, in an organization with a rookie head coach, a rookie G.M., and one of the youngest rosters in the league?
Easy. He’s not.