At the time of Ralph Krueger’s hiring as the new head coach of the Edmonton Oilers, I quickly saw the subsequent re-up of Oklahoma City Barons coach, Todd Nelson, to be nothing more than a promise. A promise that he’d continue to be a big part of shaping the young players on the farm in Oklahoma City, and perhaps a chance to take the helm of the Oilers if Krueger didn’t pan out. Krueger was a good man. His decisions weren’t perfect (I’m with the majority of fans on the placement of Yak being the strangest thing). He got one half-season. He didn’t pan out. Now he’s done. A year ago, had you told me this would unfold, I would have told you that A) no way Steve Tambellini is still calling the shots when this went down, and B) Todd Nelson would get first crack at the head coaching job in the NHL. I would have been fifty percent correct.
It appears that in the coming hours Dallas Eakins will be named the new head man in the Edmonton Oilers locker room, thus posing quite the predicament for Todd Nelson, and perhaps the Oklahoma City Barons.
Nelson and Eakins have been in some incredible head-to-head coaching battles in the last three seasons. Whether it was Linus Omark scoring six goals in one game, or a quest for a spot in the Calder Cup Finals, the familiarity between the two runs deep. Although the Marlies own the head-to-head wins, each one of those games was highly entertaining, and featured some really headstrong coaching decisions.
Nelson is slightly younger (44 vs. 46). Eakins played more NHL games (120 vs. 3). Both have had two years of NHL assistant experience. Nelson has coached in various leagues and organizations (AHL, UHL, NHL). Eakins has been all Toronto, all the time (AHL, NHL, all with Maple Leafs ties). Eakins has coached a Marlies team for four seasons, posted 30+ wins in his first two, 40+ his last two. Nelson has coached a Barons team for three straight seasons, posted 40+ all three seasons. Eakins made the playoffs in those seasons twice. Nelson made the playoffs in all three.
On paper, it’s odd to choose Eakins over Nelson.
The message hear is not necessarily wins vs. losses, postseason vs. non-postseason, experience vs. inexperience, no there’s much more at stake with this hiring. It’s about Craig MacTavish owning his decisions, and surprisingly enough, that’s fine with me.
I’m a huge fan of Todd Nelson’s bulk of work. He’s kind, cordial, easy-going, and intelligent when you speak to him directly. You can understand why the prospects in Oklahoma City (and non-prospects as well) value his opinion and understand his coaching habits. He’s a winner, and he shares that virtue with his team.
Yet it’s very clear that Craig MacTavish is going to make calculated decisions, live with the ramifications of them, but always have direction. He sees something, perhaps systematically, in the way that Eakins moves his squads that might be absent from Nelson’s resume. Maybe it’s how he’s handled the media in Toronto. It could be that Eakins just interviews better, and MacTavish liked that. Regardless, it’s hard to argue that choosing Eakins over Nelson is a bad decision because either would be a gamble at this point.
That leaves Todd Nelson blowing like chaff in the wind. Where does he go from here when a great rival takes the throne that was sculpted for his taking? Greener pastures, that’s where.
Here is what he won’t do in the coming weeks and months.
He won’t move laterally. Here’s what I mean. He won’t go and coach a team similar to the market he’s currently within. No Texas teams. No Iowa Aeros. None of that. He’ll move into a spot where he gets the most forward moving awareness, and that could be a place like Toronto or Hamilton or something equivalent.
He won’t accept an assistant NHL job. He’s been there, done that, already bought the t-shirt. Moving forward he’ll want full coaching control over his team, preferably in the NHL. He’s earned that right, and I think he fully realizes this.
He won’t stay long in Oklahoma City. This is the most difficult pill to swallow for Barons fans, and probably for Oilers fans as well, who’ve been fortunate to see winning teams go deep into the postseason for three straight years despite those teams being minor league farm teams. With Eakins in the driver’s seat, this would be a fine opportunity for Nelson to explore his options outside OKC. If he hasn’t already done so, I’d be surprised. Remember, he’s in what we assume is the upcoming second year of his two-year coaching extension in OKC, with the likelihood that there’s some contractual wiggle room for “better” coaching spots.
He won’t wait it out. MacT is here to stay. Unless Eakins rolls out the worst season in NHL history, Todd Nelson could be waiting to take that Oilers spot for another three or four years. No one would wait that one out. No one.
Here is what he will do.
He will exercise whatever option he has in his contract to find an upgrade. He’s earned the option to do this, and the Barons will wish him well.
He will make a move that has more long-term, lasting power.
He will find success wherever he goes. He is a very good coach who understands the nuts and bolts of the game better than most. He knows what a winning formula looks like.
In conclusion, it’s tough to differentiate the coaching careers of both Dallas Eakins and Todd Nelson and point to one shining example of what makes them a better candidate for the Edmonton Oilers job. Both are equally as qualified. The “X” factor for Eakins is probably something we can’t fully understand at this moment, and likewise something we all just need to be comfortable with not understanding, ever. It’s okay. Craig has a plan. As he swings for the fences, hope that he doesn’t tear any down along the way. Here’s to great successes for both Dallas and Todd, good luck.