Trying to find one word to describe Barons Head Coach, Todd Nelson, is preposterous. He’s a coach with successes, and a former player with work ethic. He’s shaped the youthful excitement at several levels with a sharp focus on how that’s done. He’s worked the system as much as he’s been worked by the system. As the Barons began their fledgling year, and to some extent Todd Nelson’s, the organizational goals were not lofty, but Coach Nelson knew better. After the Oilers affiliation with Springfield ended in shambles, the wide-open future was for the taking.
After his playing days ended in 2002, Todd Nelson began his coaching saga with one of the most storied UHL teams. The Muskegon Fury (who became the Lumberjacks again when merging with the CHL in 2010), for whom he played and assistant coached for just a season prior, inked Nelson and he quickly had success winning back-to-back Colonial Cups. Going from a minor league successful player to a minor league successful coach with a minor league successful UHL club was a natural progression. He knew the territory, the team, and the tersive nature of doing things the right way.
His goal, as a coach in those days, was simple; get kids to the next level while winning along the way. “The Muskegon Fury organization is a great organization to work for,” said Coach Nelson in an official Muskegon press release in 2006, “It’s an organization that always strives for complete and total excellence and wants to always win the championship. In addition, we always have the best interests of all our players at the top of our priority list in that we firmly believe in the promotion of our players to the AHL. Just this past season alone, we had eight of our players summoned to AHL clubs and in previous years, we have seen many more of our own players get the calls to the higher levels. We, as an organization, are quite proud of our players’ growth and achievements realized here in Muskegon.”
As a minor league lifer, with a sniff of NHL play only totaling three games, can you envision a more attractive AHL coach? From player to player assistant to full time coach, Todd Nelson embodied the minor league process.
As he jumped towards higher leagues, he indeed spread his wings. Back-to-back assistant tutelage with the AHL Chicago Wolves (in which the Wolves won the Calder in 2008), followed by back-to-back assisting roles at the NHL level with the Atlanta Thrashers brought Nelson’s name to the forefront. So when the decision was made to infuse Oklahoma City with it’s own higher tiered opportunity, Coach Nelson certainly was the right fit.
The first season on the farm in Oklahoma City must’ve been a whirlwind experience. Not having a full roster until 48 hours of the Barons maiden voyage would bring any coach to his knees. But Todd Nelson took it in stride. He mustered the team together, they scratched and clawed their way through three really poor performances to begin the season until they hit their stride.
Throughout the season, he not only dealt with injury replacement call-ups, but he spun the arrogance of Linus Omark into a beautiful web of excitement. The kid scored five goals in one night, was more glamorous than nearly any other forward in the Western Conference, and even pulled of a spin-o-rama. Nelson took it in stride, reeled him in, and harnessed the power of the almighty Linus.
He encouraged the play of Shawn Belle that earned the Edmonton native the first ever call-up to the bigs from OKC. He intelligently spoke to the seasoned veterans in Gerber and Giroux, and defined their roles as anything but ordinary grey-beards. He taught the fundamentals of the penalty kill when Tom Renney did the complete opposite (which was documented splendidly by Derek Zona at Copper & Blue) He instilled quiet swagger in a workhorse named Teemu Hartikainen who proved his worth while not beating himself up about mis-steps. He moved Colin McDonald from a below average player in the AHL to one who is now considered a top-tier minor league player with NHL potential. He introduced us to a guy named Mark. A Mark who was destined for the ECHL, but quickly gained studly status in the “A” (and bigger $$$). He talked openly to the media, from his plain office, in the bowels of the Cox Center. He earned the respect of his Oilers bosses, his rotating player personnel, and the fans.
The exit from the first round of the playoffs seemed too soon for this Barons team. But the team drew an elaborate portrait of its potential in years to come. The key component to this portrait will be the brush strokes that are gracefully drawn up by Coach Nelson. Each year he’ll receive a clean canvas of players. Sometimes this canvas will reveal familiar faces in consecutive years, but with a quick easel tilt, they rapidly dissolve. The strokes reveal the artist, and Nelson’s are prevelant.
Should the Oilers consider hanging on to this guy? Absolutely. Should Tom Renney worry about the “Dan Bylsma” effect? Absolutely. Any coach, at any level, that can capture the attention of youngsters on the move while still using the strengths of the veterans is a rare breed. I’m not absolutely convinced that Renney can do these two things at the same time. Don’t hear my meanderings incorrectly. Tom Renney is an admirable coach, he’s also lucky. Lucky enough to land a job with a team in a monster rebuild. The true litmus test will be in the next year or so. If the team remains in the darkest recesses of the basement, don’t be surprised to hear Todd Nelson’s name come up, especially if he continues to soar, and out-coach his way through the AHL seasons.
It was rumored that Coach Nelson was going to coach the Edmonton Oil Kings before landing in Oklahoma City. To some extent the dominoes have fallen favorably for Nelly, as many have called him through the years. And for once, the Oilers may have found a diamond in the rough. A lifer who has found new life.