Silencing the rumor mill surrounding his future, Grand Rapids Griffins head coach Todd Nelson has accepted an assistant coach position with the Dallas Stars. Murmurs surrounded Nelson following the early closure of the Griffins’ playoff run this season. Having had an interview with the Arizona Coyotes during the 2016-17 summer break, there has been plenty of reason to suspect a change to come. The Stars have been front-office headhunting since Ken Hitchcock announced his retirement earlier this season, which lead them to Nelson.
Bookending his departure, Nelson is leaving a legacy in the AHL that very few can top. Seeking opportunity and the never-ending dedication to professional betterment, Todd has positioned himself strategically to ensure continual growth. Officially graduating to the NHL like many of his former players, Nelson has a myriad of qualities that will no doubt ensure a successful career.
Nelson Leads Griffins to Playoff Success
Nelson will be entering his new leadership position with experience in multiple leagues under his belt. Before owning the head coach title in Grand Rapids, Nelson spent time in the NHL with Edmonton during the 2014-15 season as an interim head coach. During his tenure, he held a 17-22-7 record in 46 games.
Returning to the AHL, Todd inspired impressive growth in the Red Wings affiliate team. Nelson created a personal and winning culture that the players could thrive in. Within the three seasons Nelson was head coach, he led the Griffins to three consecutive playoff appearances.
Taking home a Calder Cup in the 2016-17 season, Grand Rapids also maintained an undefeated playoff home-ice record. Along with a Calder Cup, he also accrued a 133-78-17 record with the Griffins, pushing him over the 300 win mark as an AHL bench boss. Adding to his record-breaking resume, Todd also became only the third person in AHL history to win the Calder as a player, assistant coach, and head coach.
Nelson also has an impressive repertoire of current Wings that grew immensely while with him in Grand Rapids. Martin Frk and Tyler Bertuzzi developed exponentially under Todd Nelson’s leadership. Red Wings hopefuls Evgeny Svechnikov, Joe Hicketts and Dominic Turgeon all spent time with the Red Wings during the 2017-18 season; a testament to the seasoned discernment of Nelson and his coaching.
Another noteworthy product of Todd Nelson is Tomas Nosek, currently playing in his first Stanley Cup Final with the Vegas Golden Knights. There is no doubt that these young men, and many more still in Grand Rapids, are the direct result of the personal coaching style of Nelson.
Translating AHL Success to the NHL
That begs the question, “Even if a coach is far superior in the AHL, will that translate equally to the NHL?” Not always. In Jeff Blashill’s case, it was and is a struggle. After spending three seasons in Grand Rapids and also earning a Calder Cup, the Red Wings head coach was booted out of his first Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2014-15. The seasons that have followed have been an equal struggle. The opposite was true for Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. Cooper transitioned to the NHL in 2012-13 after a stint with the Syracuse Crunch. Heading to the Stanley Cup Playoffs four out of six NHL seasons, Cooper has made the AHL to NHL transition look easy.
Nelson possesses an internal drive that could rival most head coaches in the NHL. He’s fiercely competitive with a freakish sense of calm, even under immense pressure. Todd has multi-league experience, including a Clark Cup playing with the USHL’s Muskegon Fury (now Muskegon Lumberjacks), several Calder Cups in the AHL, and time in the NHL as a coach as well as a player with Pittsburgh. He understands the process of development and growth in the athletes as well as the demand of the game.
Dallas Stars Gain From Grand Rapids’ Loss
Throughout his time with Grand Rapids, Nelson has been able to spot the unique qualities, great or small, in each player and create indestructible lines. Todd also has the ability to earn the players’ trust on a personal and professional level which they in turn, repay in production and loyalty. Nelson has a genuine care for the success of the organization he is a part of and works tirelessly to bring that success to life.
His technical knowledge of the game and strategy will be a valuable asset to Dallas in terms of development and line pairings, which is exactly what the Stars plan on using him for. “My role is going to be working with the defense – running the bench with the defenseman (and) also working with the power play,” Todd told the media.
Despite the exciting opportunity for growth and career advancement, Nelson did acknowledge the struggle surrounding his decision. Having spent the better part of thirty years in the West Michigan area, Nelson has firm roots and connections with Michiganders. Nelson’s relentless drive to better himself, however, overruled those ties in the end.
In accepting the position with Dallas, Nelson is severing the potential for stagnation in the AHL, “…in this game, sometimes people get labeled. I’ve coached for eight years in the American Hockey League as a head coach, and if I stay maybe another three or four, all of a sudden I might get that label of ‘he’s just a good head coach in the American League,'” Nelson said, “So I wanted to get out of my comfort zone, go to a different organization and try something new.” Much like he pushes those under his coaching to constantly being challenging and improving, he expects no less from himself.
Going forward, the Red Wings organization has a tough decision to make. With a slew of eligible and talented coaches already serving in Grand Rapids, such as Ben Simon and Bruce Ramsay, their ECHL affiliate the Toledo Walleye, also harbors Dan Watson. All are very skilled coaches in their own right, but there’s no telling just yet who the Wings will court first, if at all. As for the Dallas Stars, however, they have gained a star.
Todd Nelson is highly respected in the Grand Rapids community by both fans and players. His consistency and genuine demeanor towards his players created an eternal bond of loyalty in West Michigan. As a Grand Rapids resident and Griffins supporter, I can safely say we are all proud of the success he’s had and the success he will continue to have in the NHL.
I am a Detroit Red Wings prospect journalist for Access Hockey MI covering the Grand Rapids Griffins and Toledo Walleye prospect development. Draft analyst for USHL hockey with the Muskegon Lumberjacks.