It hasn’t been easy to coach the Oilers’ AHL affiliate the last few years. Kelly Buchberger wasn’t overwhelmed with success in the job, although he was promoted to the Oilers’ NHL staff. His replacement, Jeff Truitt, was a distinguished WHL coach, but was fired midway through his first season as head coach of the Falcons. Rob Daum filled in for Truitt, and eventually got the top job for this past season, but wasn’t able to turn things around and was let go over the summer. In fact, the last head coach to get the team to 0.500 was Geoff Ward, back when the Montreal Canadiens were still supplying players. That was in 2003.
The Oilers hope they’ve found a man who can change that pattern and bring some success to the farm club. According to the Edmonton Journal, Todd Nelson, passed over for the same job with the Edmonton Oil Kings, will be named as the first head coach of the Oklahoma City Barons tomorrow.
Nelson’s last job was as an assistant coach with the Atlanta Thrashers, a post he held for two seasons, and lost when he was cleared out along with the rest of head coach John Anderson’s staff. Nelson also coached under Anderson for two years in the AHL, helping guide the Chicago Wolves to a third round playoff exit one year and a league championship in the other.
Under Anderson, Nelson’s largest responsibility was overseeing the defence (his position back in his playing days), and looking at his track record in Atlanta, he seems a lot like a guy who did the best he could with what he had (experience that should serve him well in Oklahoma). In 2008-09, he had the following seven defencemen:
- Zach Bogosian
- Tobias Enstrom
- Garnet Exelby
- Ron Hainsey
- Niclas Havelid
- Nathan Oystrick
- Boris Valabik
That’s a pretty ugly top-seven, with maybe two of those guys qualified to handle tough minutes. Nelson seems to have done what he could; he sent Boris Valabik out a lot in the defensive end, but mostly against lower calibre opponents. He also sheltered only Nathan Oystrick and Anssi Salmela in terms of both competition and zone-start (the two were the only blue-liners to have a better than 46.0% zone-start rate). The other five got tossed to the wolves, with Enstrom excelling (and helping protect Bogosian at the same time), and Havelid and Exelby posting surprisingly good results. Exelby, for example, improved from minus-21 in 2007-08 to just minus-2 in 2008-09. Hainsey struggled, but given that he was facing the fourth-best opposition on the blue-line (and that the players behind him were Valabik and Oystrick) there wasn’t much Nelson could do.
2009-10 plays out similarly, with the best players sent out in horrible situations and the young ones protected as best he could. Zach Bogosian took a step back, and saw his quality of competition drop off. Boris Valabik moved down the depth chart, and Nelson started giving him more sheltered zone start rates. Nelson did deviate in one way – he gave Tobias Enstrom some much easier ice-time, with a zone-start rate of 47.5% compared to 41.6% the year before. Enstrom had 26 even-strength points in the previous two seasons combined; that total shot up to 30 with the improved opportunity, a career best season. Looking over Nelson’s work with the Thrashers, I have difficulty finding anything in his handling of the defence that has me worried.
Prior to being hired by Anderson, Nelson was a head coach at the UHL level, where he spent three seasons coaching the Muskegon Fury (the team he finished his playing career with). In those three years, his team won two championships, and Nelson left the UHL with a career winning percentage of 0.642.
As for Nelson’s playing career, he was drafted as an over-ager by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1989. He played seven NHL games (scoring a goal!) but spent a dozen seasons as a high-end offensive defenceman in the IHL, AHL, DEL and, finally, the UHL. Among his former coaches are his predecessor, Rob Daum, and Nashville Predators head coach Barry Trotz.
Naturally, our information on this sort of hiring is limited, but given the fact that Nelson has experience as an NHL assistant and that his time as a minor league head coach was spectacularly successful, I’m cautiously optimistic. Also in Nelson’s favour: the fact that he appears to have no prior ties to the current Oilers’ regime.