The Edmonton Oilers could be on the verge of suffering their first significant loss of the off-season — that being former interim coach Todd Nelson.
It has been nothing but wins to this point — since the actual season ended for Edmonton — with the Oilers overhauling the front office to give Bob Nicholson more responsibility, then bringing in Peter Chiarelli to take over the roles of Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish as president of hockey operations and general manager. Killing two birds with one stone with that hire. Of course, it all started with winning the draft lottery and the right to select Connor McDavid, who has been labeled a generational talent just as good if not better than Sidney Crosby. The icing on the cake came in the form of new head coach Todd McLellan, landing him less than 72 hours after he led Team Canada — including Oilers wingers Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle — to gold at the world championship. Talk about a win-win there.
The stars were finally aligning in Edmonton. It was all sunshine and rainbows, optimism was abound again. So it seemed inevitable that Nelson, who enjoyed considerable second-half success in mop-up duty of Dallas Eakins’ mess, would be sticking around on McLellan’s staff as an associate or assistant coach.
Turns out, that assumption might have been wishful thinking. According to Elliotte Friedman in his weekly Headlines segment, Nelson has requested and been granted permission by the Oilers to seek employment elsewhere — to test the waters for other head-coaching jobs. You’d hate to see a good one get away, but Nelson obviously sees himself as a head coach first and foremost.
Not another BabWatch
There are still vacancies in San Jose, where McLellan came from, as well as Buffalo, Detroit and New Jersey. St. Louis, Boston and even Los Angeles have reportedly contemplated making changes as well, but it seems unlikely any of those teams would ditch an established veteran for a relative newbie like Nelson. And he’ll have stiff competition for the jobs that are available, with the likes of Dan Bylsma, Peter DeBoer, Guy Boucher, Randy Carlyle and Adam Oates among the candidates rumoured to be in the running. The Red Wings could be leaning towards promoting Jeff Blashill from their farm team once the AHL playoffs are over — taking that option off the table — so Nelson is going to be in tough to find another gig. Especially given that any team hiring Nelson would likely need to relinquish a draft pick to Edmonton as compensation for a coach with two years left on a three-year extension he signed last summer to continue as bench boss of the AHL’s Oklahoma City Barons. Perhaps Nelson could circle back to Bakersfield for next season — the Barons are moving there — but that would mean bumping his good buddy Gerry Fleming, who was also impressive in Nelson’s absence.
Wait and see approach
The Oilers haven’t closed the book on Nelson. It is more so him wanting to write a new, or different, chapter. According to Friedman, Edmonton’s brass will touch base with Nelson again in a couple of weeks rather than move on without him. It doesn’t sound like the Oilers have any imminent announcements to round out their coaching staff, but expect Jay Woodcroft — McLellan’s right-hand man in San Jose and with Team Canada — to join the fold in some capacity sooner than later. That title may be dependent on what happens with Nelson.
McLellan is, by all accounts — including those of Hall and Eberle — a great coach. He’s won a Stanley Cup, back in 2008 as Mike Babcock’s assistant in Detroit, and a Calder Cup in 2003 as head coach of the Minnesota Wild’s farm team, the Houston Aeros. He’s from small-town Saskatchewan and sounds genuinely happy to be returning to the Prairies, going as far as to say he’s missed the snow while spending the last seven winters in sunny California. He endeared himself to Edmontonians with that comment.
Good ol’ Sask boys
McLellan also mentioned that he has a history with Nelson, another Sakatchewan native just a year younger than McLellan. He didn’t elaborate too much on their past relationship, but the hockey world is a small world, so it’s safe to assume their paths have crossed several times throughout their playing and coaching careers. McLellan planned to talk with Nelson, who previously had a lengthy meeting with Nicholson, so, reading between the lines, it seems as though the Oilers would still like to retain him. Providing that interest is mutual, and those other existing opportunities end up eluding Nelson.
There could still be a happy ending here — a fit for Nelson with the Oilers — but if he does decide to move on, you can’t blame him. This is the second time Nelson has been passed over in Edmonton, and he was none too pleased when MacTavish took over and replaced Ralph Krueger with Eakins, who had been Nelson’s AHL equal with the Toronto Marlies at the time. In hindsight, that was MacTavish’s biggest mistake, both sacking Krueger who had the Oilers trending upward and overlooking Nelson within the organization.
Fixing what was failing
Eakins was the shiny new bike and had other teams kicking tires too — he talked a good talk — but clearly he needed training wheels, which resulted in a painful fall from grace. Enter Nelson, stepping in on no notice to take over a team in shambles with no sense of direction. To swarm or not to swarm, none of the players knew the plan from one game to the next, but they quickly bought into Nelson’s systems and started making strides thanks to his teachings. The power play pretty much went from worst to first after the all-star break. Nail Yakupov flashed the potential he had shown as a rookie under Krueger — the No. 1 pick in 2012 no longer looked like a bust under Nelson, who paired him with Derek Roy to spark that resurgence. Justin Schultz never looked like a Norris nominee, but even he was progressing and regaining some of the confidence that Eakins had sucked from his game.
All those young core players took a liking to Nelson and endorsed his return when it came time to empty their lockers. You can bet Hall and Eberle have since put in a good word for him with McLellan too. And vice versa in their conversations with Nelson — expressing their excitement about McLellan’s hire in hopes that Nelson will accept the demotion that is being asked of him.
Fingers are crossed
The reality is, had Eakins not been such an epic failure, the Oilers might have handed the reins directly to Nelson as part of this transitional phase. But Chiarelli’s hands were somewhat tied in that he couldn’t gamble on another rookie coach — not with McDavid’s development at stake. He couldn’t risk putting his trust in somebody he didn’t really know in Nelson — somebody that, worst-case scenario, could become Eakins 2.0.
Chiarelli wanted to hire his guy — much like MacTavish did with Eakins — and McLellan was as good a choice as any, at least on paper, so you can’t hold that decision against Chiarelli. That much has been communicated to Nelson by now, but you can also understand where he’s coming from — that he’s tired of being a bridesmaid in Edmonton and feels ready to be somebody else’s bride if that match is out there.
At the end of the day, if it’s meant to be, it will be — for all parties involved. And if Nelson is back behind Edmonton’s bench this fall, that will just be another fortunate twist of fate for the franchise in an off-season already full of them.
Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.
Larry Fisher is a senior writer and head scout for The Hockey Writers, having been an at-large contributor for THW since August 2014. Fisher covers both the NHL and the WHL, specializing in prospects and NHL draft content, including his annual mock drafts that date back to 2012. Fisher has also been a beat writer for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets since 2008, formerly working as a sports reporter/editor for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada from 2008-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.