Less than 24 hours after the announcement of Dallas Eakins’ firing, and the promotion of Todd Nelson to interim Oilers coach, I am still yammering on and on about how much I love “Nelly”. With the nostalgia in the review mirror, let’s focus our attention on the here, the now, and potentially the future.
When a new coach is hired the first thing you want to understand is roster management. How will he move players throughout the lineup? How will he pair defenders? Who gets TOI on the PP? The PK? All legitimate questions that will be answered over time. Yet there are marks of Todd Nelson coached teams, and most importantly Todd Nelson coached teams in the same pipeline as the Oilers.
For much of five seasons Nelson has been dealt different versions of rosters. There was year one through three where the top half of the lineup was padded by scorers. This allowed younger players to mature over time within the farm system, but it also buried their minutes. This was fine and dandy when the Oilers were trying to salvage the fiery bus crash that was their AHL affiliated team, but it ran its course. The introduction of a new GM in Craig MacTavish gave way to a different approach on the farm. Vets were inserted as prospects themselves with ice time going more towards younger, developing players. This was seen particularly on defense where the Barons rarely have kept more than an extra defender on the roster, and sometimes only travelling with six. Forwards too got more ice time. In December of 2014 Todd Nelson was able to find a balance of vet scoring and prospect ice time, and it has worked pretty well.
All five seasons of the Nelson Era in Oklahoma City have given us five different teams (practically), but the playoff berths still happened, the team still peaked at the right times, and in the end were vastly better than when they began play in October.
Needless to say, there are some very important things you get from a Todd Nelson coached team. Let’s explore, shall we.
Reliance On The Goaltender
Gerber. Danis. Bachman. Three #1 goaltenders in five seasons of hockey, and all of them remarkably decent in the minors. The Oilers were in need of good #3 tenders, so these moves make sense. It does, however, point to a bit of a luxury for Todd Nelson and his teams. Defenses in the minors get accosted by shot totals. They aren’t all that much higher than in the NHL, but they come in waves as player transactions happen more frequently (mainly in the call-up department). It wasn’t unusual for a guy like Gerber to face 50 shots against Houston. Or for Danis to battle back from 48 against San Antonio. The fact that all three tenders have found great success is a testament to their abilities, and the Oilers plucking them from elsewhere.
With the Oilers desperately needing defensive prospects to pan out (and quickly) the bulk of the defensive responsibility landed on the goaltenders. This might be a problem with current NHLers Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth struggling through the first two months of the season. Likely a product of a bad defense, Nelson is going to look to the netminders to bail him out from time to time, and that really hasn’t happened in 2014.
Strong 1-3-1 Power Play, Offensive Defender At Top
Todd Nelson loves the 1-3-1 power play formation with two strong, great passing wingers along the left and rights boards with a centerman behind the net. A big bulky body in the middle, and an offensive defender at the top. The problem with this power play formation is the liability. If the puck squirts out of the offensive zone there is one guy that has to wrestle the opponent away. That aside the player in Gretzky’s office usually doesn’t drop low until the puck lands there. This means that there might be two in front of the net, one in the middle, two high until the team gets the puck in deep. So we go from a 1-2-2 to a 1-3-1 rather quickly.
This isn’t something that is an abnormality in the National Hockey League, but it does take the right sort of motivation to accomplish. It also takes a good puck mover at the top (he really liked Brad Hunt or Justin Schultz during lockout). Watch for this to eventually seep into the practice rotation of the team.
Hot vs Cold Defensive Pairings
Defensively speaking, there have been times in OKC where things were grimm. We cringed, we wept, we survived. The team has always prided itself upon the foundational truth that no losing streak is too large. In the minutia of lineup management is the hot vs cold defensive pairings that has saved Barons’ bacon on more than one occasion.
What I mean by this is when he might pair Brandon Davidson with Martin Gernat or Jordan Oesterle with Oscar Klefbom. Beyond the top two pairings he really likes to “make up” for weaknesses of one player by compensating with another. This has worked, especially in recent seasons, but takes a special breed of player that is willing to cover the rump of his partner.
The Edmonton Oilers like to throw around the word “responsibility” and “accountability” a lot these days, and I think maybe fans (me included) struggle to know exactly what that means at times. For Nelson’s Barons there is grace shown when necessary, but also moments where you really have to take ownership for your mistakes. This might mean that you sit a game. This happens mostly with the forwards where (we will get into this shortly) outside of the top two lines, things can change nightly. He quietly arms players with the ability to take their responsibility and turn it into a ever-gorgeous rose. That takes a cautious hand.
He Likes What He Likes
When forward groups are clicking, he isn’t going to change much. When defenders are playing soundly, movement is unncessary. It usually takes Todd Nelson 6-8 games to select his top two lines. He will stick to it come hell or high water. The third and fourth lines usually consist of players drafted or signed to play there. But those same players will move fluidly throughout the third and fourth lines. Gazdic might play left or right wing, and he might be asked to play third or fourth line, for example.
The defenders don’t change often until the team gets in to the thickness of terrible pudding. But again, he likes what he likes.
In summation, Todd Nelson’s future depends on how well he manages the mess that is the Edmonton Oilers. In the remaining 45+ games it would be an amazing feat if he captured 20 wins. That sounds like a giant task, and I’m hopeful for 25+. He is going to have to be entirely flexible, more so now than ever, if he wants this to work. I think success is attainable, but the mountain is high.