The Oklahoma City Barons won 40 or more games in their first three seasons, a first in Edmonton Oilers’ history for their top minor league affiliate.
The Barons didn’t get to 40 this season, but coach Todd Nelson and assistants Gerry Fleming and Rocky Thompson might have done their best coaching job yet just to reach the playoffs with 36 wins.
Constantly forced to juggle the lineup due to 152 roster transactions, the Barons finished strong, going 20-7-5 over the final three months to make the American Hockey League playoffs for the fourth consecutive year.
Many say you can trace the success directly to Nelson, who played more than 300 AHL games and also played in the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals.
“I can’t imagine how many different nameplates Matty (equipment manager Matt Mitchell) has had to make this season,” said defenseman Taylor Fedun. “The entire time he held steadfast in his vision for this team and how he wanted us to play.”
The Barons are the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. They host the Texas Stars, the AHL’s top team, in Game 1 of a best-of-five series Wednesday night at the Cox Convention Center.
“The most important thing is to get players to care more about each other than they do themselves, put the team first and themselves second,” Nelson said. “I know it’s a cliché, but it’s true.
“Nowadays that’s more difficult. You can no longer just coach with a stare and make them jump like they used to. Today’s athlete is more sensitive. More money is involved. Still, the key today is the same as it’s always been: you need guys pulling on the rope together.”
Despite surrendering a league-high 2,563 shots, the Barons caught fire once Mark Arcobello, the franchise’s all-time scoring leader, was reassigned to Oklahoma City on Feb. 2.
Even while Arcobello was sidelined the final three weeks of the regular season with a shoulder injury that probably leaves him doubtful for Games 1 and 2 in OKC, the Barons continued to win.
“The guys love playing for Nelly,” said 29-year-old veteran Steve Pinizzotto. “There were times the roster was changing on a nightly basis. You can’t give Nelly, Gerry and Rocky enough credit. They’ve done a tremendous job.”
Nelson, 44, has been a professional head coach for seven seasons. All seven teams have reached the playoffs. His teams are 137 games over .500.
His systems are aggressive, hockey’s version of fast-break basketball.
Team captain Anton Lander said Nelson’s system is tweaked but never changes. Despite bouncing back and forth between Edmonton and Oklahoma City this season, Lander said it’s always a smooth transition when he rejoins the Barons.
“Nelly, Gerry and Rocky have been together, which is big,” Lander said. “It’s the same system every year. The thing they do best is bring the team together. We work hard for the guy next to us in the locker room.”
Players stressed that Nelson’s personality helped them fight through the early months, when the roster was a constant revolving door and the playoffs seemed liked a pipe dream since OKC was in 13th place, far from a playoff spot.
“One of the coaching staff’s best traits is patience,” said veteran Matthew Ford. “We’ve had so many young guys this year. Their patience to allow guys to grow, make mistakes, Nelly has a unique way to bring out the best out of a player.”
Muskegon captured back-to-back United Hockey League Colonial Cup championships under Nelson, who also was part of an AHL Calder Cup championship team as an assistant with the Chicago Wolves prior to taking over the newly formed Barons four years ago.
A candidate to be named an NHL head coach sometime in the next couple of years, Nelson, who lives in Edmond throughout the season, has a knack for pushing the right buttons at the right time.
“He can joke around with you, but he’s serious when it’s time to be serious,” said defenseman Brad Hunt. “He’s also a very good teacher. Once players realized the system does work, everything started falling into place.”
An underdog in the opening round against the top-seeded Stars, the Barons could be a dangerous first-round draw in a shorter five-game series. In the second round, series are best-of-seven.
“We had a lot of turnover this season but now we have a consistent group,” Nelson said. “It sounds corny, but you can tell these guys have a genuine love for each other. Texas is a very good hockey team, but we’ve been playing some pretty good hockey ourselves.”
“I’ve never seen the dressing room stronger than it is right now. They’re working hard for each other, having fun. As a coach that’s what you love to see. That’s usually a good formula for winning a lot of hockey games.”
And make the playoffs year after year after year.