DETROIT, MICH -- With all the ruckus of Jeff Blashill being named as the 27th head coach in Red Wings history, there was a large, and I mean large, hole to be filled with the coaching vacancy for the NHL club affiliate Grand Rapids Griffins. It's been reported that Detroit has hired former Edmonton Oilers interim head coach Todd Nelson to take on the bench-bossing duties for Detroit's AHL team.
Most Red Wings fans might ask, who is Todd Nelson? Wait, the guy who coached the dismal Oilers last season? That can't be good. To the contrary, my friends.
Nelson, the 46-year-old Prince Albert, Saskatoon-native spent one season as an assistant coach with the Griffins in 2002-2003, and then returned to the Muskegon Fury (whom he was an assistant coach for in 2001-2002), as a head coach. In his first two years as head coach of Muskegon, the team went on to win the Colonial Cup in back-to-back years. After his three-year tenure with the UHL team, he went on to coach the Oilers AHL affiliate Oklahoma City Barons, appearing in the Calder Cup Playoffs every single year during his duration.
After the firing of Edmonton head coach Dallas Eakins in the 2014-2015 regular season, Nelson was named interim coach of the NHL club posting a 17-25-9 record in his 42 game regime. Let's get one thing straight, and I think it goes without saying - The Oilers were a mess. They still might be a mess even with the recent hiring of Todd McLellan, and the drafting of franchise-preserving talent in Connor McDavid. Before Eakins was fired in 2014, the Oilers had a record of 7-19-5, were dead-last in their division, and were without a doubt the worst team in the entire NHL. I'm not saying that Todd Nelson came in and turned the team around, but he did manage to make the best of what he had and help his team finish 6th in their division.
One of my most favorite hockey writers, and an Edmonton Oilers writer oddly enough, Jonathan Willis had a series of articles on the newly-appointed Griffins coach earlier last year when he was named to the Oilers on an interim basis. His articles are chocked full of quotes from Nelson in reference to his system, models, and overall ideals on what a head coach should do for his players:
It’s the first thing I tell all my players: ‘I have an open door policy, if you have issues please come talk with me. If you don’t feel comfortable talking with me, pull one of the assistants aside and talk with them. We have to know how you’re feeling. If you’re suffering on the ice with your play, it could be something totally different than your on-ice play, it could be something that’s bothering you mentally and emotionally off the ice.’
I don't know about you, but this is something I feel should be adopted by all coaches at every level whether it's pro, amateur, or even pee-wee. When you're manning an entire roster of athletes who are putting themselves on the line night in and night out, you need to take what that can do for an individual on a mental or emotional level into consideration. Nelson's comments on having an "open door policy" go a long way for myself as a fan, and an avid humanistic person. These men are athletes, but when they take off their team sweaters and their pads, hop into their vehicles to go home, they are just like you and I. If something is wrenching at their emotions or cognitive processes, it needs to be addressed. Not only for the sake of the team, but the player's livelihood. Coaches like this are ones who have strong bonds with their players, and when you're training a team full of prospects who are NHL-bound, the importance of this is enormous.
"We’re here to help, especially at this level where you have young guys," Nelson said. "You have to be sensitive, especially for the first year players and the Europeans coming over, it’s a totally new environment and they’re on their own. The Europeans, for instance, they’re a long ways from their girlfriends or maybe their families. We want to make sure that they’re living the right way and also dealing with the first year of pro life. I’ve had players that came through here and they were homesick."
This quote from Willis' article is huge. How often do you hear coaches addressing these sorts of issues? Not very often, that's a fact. The reluctancy from NHL teams to draft European players has a lot to do with what we often read as "work ethic," or "compete." While we hear so much about this, we never see coaches, organizations, or media giving Euro-born players the benefit of the doubt. Todd Nelson comes right out and says it: If a player is underachieving, perhaps there's a possibility that they're having a tough time adapting to life thousands of miles away from what they are accustomed to. This is where an "open door policy" can play a huge role in player development. The Red Wings are an organization who prides itself on its ability to draft and develop athletes hailing from across the pond. While they've done a wondrous job of doing so thus far, there's no doubt in my mind that a coach like Todd Nelson could potentially bolster their abilities to develop players way of playing by creating a comfortable atmosphere for them on a day-to-day basis.
"There are two parts of coaching: arts and science," he said, crediting Oilers’ coaching guru Billy Moores with the line. "The science is the X’s and O’s, the things that you can see, the things that you want to do. The arts is ‘how do we get [our players] to do that."It’s fine to say it; you can be a dictator, to say ‘do this,’" he went on. "You do it, but I call it ‘discretionary effort.’ Are you willing to go through the wall, or are you just doing it to do it? That’s where the arts come in, that’s where a coach has to get everybody on board in there for a common goal."
To wrap up my analysis of Nelson's hiring, Willis provides some more valuable information from the head coach on what his system entails. The aforementioned "arts and science" is something that I think every Red Wings fan can get behind. His words explaining this mantra are artful in itself. "Are you willing to go through the wall, or are you just doing it to do it?" Nelson isn't just coaching his players to win the big shiny trophy, he's coaching his players to succeed not only at their current level, but at levels beyond. To do that, he goes on and dishes about developing trust from his team. Many of the players with Grand Rapids now have a strong bond with Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill, and it's certainly going to be a different atmosphere with a new coach around. Could it make things difficult to start? Sure, but Nelson's philosophy isn't too far off from what Blashill's was during his stay in Grand Rapids. You're the man in charge, you're the boss.. Give yourself to the team, and the team will give itself to you.
Jonathan Willis, the writer for the Edmonton Journal, gave me some closing thoughts on what he thinks about Todd Nelson:
Todd Nelson has an impressive track record as a minor-league coach, and did good things in Edmonton during a short stint as interim head coach. It's important to realize the Oilers' minor-league system was a complete disaster prior to his arrival; he helped turn it into a professional operation, both winning games and developing players. But the thing that really stood out to me when I was in Oklahoma City was less the things Nelson said and more what was said about him. In talking (both on and off the record) with team staff and players , I got a sense of a group that truly liked and respected Nelson. In all honesty, the Detroit Red Wings just hired an NHL-ready head coach to run their minor-league affiliate.
Drafting and developing will remain a grand priority for the Red Wings in the coming years with the aging core of veteran players. To develop youth, you must have a man who can give himself to his team, and make them feel comfortable even when they are completely out of their element. Todd Nelson's ideologies, and hockey systematics will play an enormous role in the development of our young players. So with that, I think that Nelson could end up being a home run for the Detroit Red Wings organization.