Todd Nelson's goal is to be a National Hockey League head coach. In the meantime, Nelson embraces coaching the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons, who open training camp Sunday at the Cox Convention Center.
Nelson, 43, was a finalist last summer for the Edmonton vacancy, but the Oilers named Ralph Krueger to replace Tom Renney, who was let go after the season. An NHL assistant two seasons with the Atlanta Thrashers before becoming the Barons' head coach their inaugural season, Nelson signed a three-year deal with OKC.
“Of course I'd want to go up in the NHL if that opportunity arose, but coaching here is the right path for me right now,” Nelson said. “In the future that could change. Three years down the road, I might want to get back in the NHL (as an assistant).
“This is a great opportunity for me personally to work with a great bunch of young guys and help these players make the jump to the NHL. Right now, for my career, I want to establish myself in the American Hockey League, have success here and hopefully win a championship.”
Nelson led the Barons to the playoffs his first season, ending a five-year playoff drought for Edmonton's Triple-A affiliate. Last season, the Barons reached the Western Conference finals. General manager Bill Scott said Nelson's open-door policy and communication skills were key factors.
“Everybody is on the same page all the time,” Scott said. “If a player isn't sure why his ice time is down, he knows he can go to Todd to see what the situation is and what he needs to work on. Todd will give him that answer straightforward.
“Players respect that. Players nowadays don't want to be babied. They want the straight talk and know what they need to do to improve. Todd has done a great job with that.”
This season is unique. The Barons will start the season with three of the Oilers' top young prospects, who will play in the AHL during the NHL lockout.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the No. 1 overall pick a year ago, was a finalist for the Calder Trophy, given to the NHL's top rookie. Jordan Eberle has played in 147 NHL games. Justin Schultz was a star at Wisconsin before making his pro debut.
“It's very exciting to have the opportunity to work with young guys that have so much talent,” Nelson said. “It's my job to mold these guys into excellent professional hockey players so when the lockout ends they can go up and help the big club.”
If there wasn't a lockout, AHL teams would have to wait for NHL teams to make final cuts to formulate their final rosters. But this year, the Barons open camp with the same group that will open the season Oct. 12 on the road. The home opener is Oct. 19.
Returning 16 players that played in OKC a year ago, the Barons have 34 players in camp, 26 assigned by the Oilers. The Barons probably will cut to 23, with a few players sent to Stockton, Calif., in the East Coast Hockey League. Twenty can dress out for games.
“What we did last year was rotate guys in and out,” Nelson said. “I'm not going to have a guy here for three weeks and not play him. We want to keep everyone fresh. But sometimes it's tough to find ice time for everybody. That's the hardest part but seems to work itself out in the end.”
The process starts Sunday. Nelson has scheduled midweek scrimmages. The Barons host Houston for two preseason games Friday and Saturday.
AHL teams' primary responsibility is to develop players, but Nelson believes winning at the minor league level is part of the process.
“Talking to some of our guys, we feel we have some unfinished business this year,” Nelson said. “Our goal is to win the Calder Cup. If players have success in the playoffs, I believe they carry that with them in the NHL, and that's with them for life.
“We've created a winning culture here and want to build on what we did last year. We feel we have a pretty strong team and will be very competitive. I feel it's going to be a very exciting year.”